Remembering Freda Black, out of ‘The Staircase’ murder trial spotlight

Freda Black, prosecutor in Michael Peterson trial and ‘Staircase’ documentary, dies

Freda Black, former Durham County assistant district attorney, was found dead at her home over the weekend, Durham police confirmed Monday morning. She was known for being part of the prosecution in the Michael Peterson murder trial. (No Audio)
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Freda Black, former Durham County assistant district attorney, was found dead at her home over the weekend, Durham police confirmed Monday morning. She was known for being part of the prosecution in the Michael Peterson murder trial. (No Audio)

In recent years, Freda Black, the former Durham County prosecutor who was found dead at her home Sunday, stayed as far away from the spotlight as she could.

I happened to talk to her several times about the podcast “Beyond Reasonable Doubt,” on the Michael Peterson/Kathleen Peterson case, and the producers’ desire to interview her. (bit.ly/BBCPetersoncasepodcast) She told me she was going through a lot with her elderly father and some issues he had encountered. She mentioned her two college-age daughters. She had a job that didn’t pay well at all and wasn’t easy.

I told Freda I could do the interview if that would make her more comfortable. I suggested it might be good for her to get back in the game, as it were, after she struggled in recent years with alcohol-related driving offenses and humbling employment she’d had to take in their wake.

On the phone Freda was as sharp as ever, but I felt she was unsteady, not confident in herself, too.

“I’ll think about it, Gaspo,” she said, “but my mind is not at its best right now.”

I asked to see her and talk if that would help.

“I’ll let you know,” she said.

In the end Freda declined the offer to meet and didn’t do the podcast interview. She went back to her private life.

Tom Gasparoli

The Peterson case back in the early 2000s had been the professional zenith for Freda, and it seemed not too many good things had happened for her since. I reached out a time or two after our talk but didn’t hear back.

I worried about Freda. She was a fighter but there were heavy burdens weighing her down.

Then, about a month ago, the spotlight was shining near Freda Black again. “The Staircase,” a 13-part documentary on the Michael Peterson murder case (with three new parts since the close of the case), came to Netflix with much fanfare and commentary.

Freda at trial in the summer of 2003 got a lot of air time. There were hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of new eyeballs paying attention to the Peterson saga. Some on social media made strong and less than flattering comments about Freda on Twitter.

Several of those comments came in response to a tweet July 13 that said, in part, “And, of course, Freda had two DWI’s and now works at a dry cleaners. What goes around comes around. #karma.” (bit.ly/TweetaboutFredaBlack).

Those words, still there as I write this (I have a screenshot as documentation), show up on the apparent account of long-time Peterson defense attorney David Rudolf. I suppose they speak for themselves.

For the record, Freda hadn’t worked at the dry cleaners for a few years. It was a business I patronized, and I often saw her there. Last year, she told me she was working for an area fundraising group.

In “The Staircase,” the one-time prosecutor’s high water moment was on display but Freda, as I wrote earlier, didn’t want attention anymore; she shunned it.

Now, after her sad, sudden passing, I prefer thinking about the woman in the DA’s office who had so much zest and intellect, who laughed easily, and who wore her pursuit of justice proudly. A few times she’d talked to me about the Peterson case, as many principals did. Prior to trial, we had some provocative discussions about major stories I was looking into, but she understood the journalist’s job.

Way back then, I knew Freda was struggling a bit in her life outside the office. She occasionally shared. But in the nationally televised trial, she was on point.

Kelli Colgan, a Peterson juror, says, “Freda was quick, feisty, and prepared. She balanced Jim Hardin, who was methodical and low-key. I think we all thought Freda prosecuted the case extremely well.”

Colgan continued: “I am stunned and heartbroken to hear of her death. I know she’d had some troubles over the past years, and to be honest I immediately wondered if they played into what happened to her. I just feel she probably had a lot she had to live with. After the Peterson trial, it just seemed from a distance to be a downward spiral for her that never found its way back up.”

FILE PHOTO: Durham asst. DA Freda Black, after just having hugged Durham DA Jim Hardin also embraced her colleague, asst. DA David Saacks after defendant Michael Peterson was read the jury’s guilty verdict and escorted from the courtroom in handcuffs on Oct. 10, 2003. Harry Lynch

I came across a News & Observer photo array of Freda during the case, and one image really stands out. She is hugging someone with intensity (right after the guilty verdict, I believe). Her eyes are staring upward with what seems to be a mix of relief, gratitude and perhaps prayer.

In that split second of a photographer’s shutter, Freda seems both victorious and very vulnerable. It speaks volumes.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com.

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