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SC ‘lost a giant’ in death of former USC law professor and ethics scholar John Freeman

·7 min read

The University of South Carolina and the state’s legal community is mourning the loss of a “giant” whose influence in the field of ethics went far beyond USC’s law school, where he taught for more than 30 years.

John Freeman, a former USC law professor and scholar of legal ethics, died Oct. 21 after a five-year battle with cancer, his daughter Nora Freeman Engstrom told The State.

Freeman was born April 7, 1945, in Canton, Illinois, and raised in the Illinois cities of Wheaton and Naperville. In 1963, he enrolled in Notre Dame University, where he graduated with both his bachelor’s degree and law degree — a distinction known as a Double Domer. After graduation, he practiced law in Cleveland, Ohio, and in 1973 joined USC’s law school, where he taught legal ethics, corporate and securities law until 2008, Freeman Engstrom said.

Four times, USC Law School students voted him the Outstanding Faculty Member, according to the law school web site.

“John was a brilliant investigator of all matters to do with lawyer ethics, securities violations and lawyer malpractice,” former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal said of Freeman. “He was very much a go-to advisor of many in the legal and in the business community. It’s a big loss for the law school and the legal profession.”

After retiring, Freeman moved out west to be closer to family, but never forgot his time in the Palmetto State, Freeman Engstrom said.

“His heart was in South Carolina, but his impact far transcended the state’s borders,” Freeman Engstrom said.

Freeman is survived by his wife of 54 years, Nancy Krupnick Freeman, his two lawyer daughters, Gretchen Freeman Cappio and Nora Freeman Engstrom, his two sons-in-law, Adam Bruce Cappio and David Freeman Engstrom, and four grandchildren, Beatrice and Julia Cappio and Connor and Elliot Engstrom.

Lawyer, mentor and teacher

Though Freeman retired in 2008, those who knew him best said he always was willing to help out lawyers or academics with their questions on ethics and law.

“Until the week of his death, he answered calls from legions of lawyers with questions about ethics, which he unfailingly provided,” Freeman Engstrom said.

Freeman was “physically imposing with a booming voice and very high expectations for his students, for fellow lawyers and even for my sister and me growing up,” Freeman Engstrom said. “He had a goofy side as well, that I think he reserved for only close friends and family.”

Freeman was good to those around him, but didn’t think twice before speaking his mind and contradicting someone. When he spoke up, he didn’t hold back. Christian Stegmaier, a former student of Freeman’s who now works as an attorney at the Columbia-based law firm Collins & Lacy, described Freeman possessing a “brutal candor.”

“There was no ambiguity with John Freeman. If you were wrong, he would tell you,” Stegmaier said.

Federal Judge Joe Anderson called Freeman a “giant” noted for his professionalism in classroom and courtroom alike.

“Whether he was mentoring a young lawyer facing a personal crisis, or untangling a web of deceit in a nationwide securities fraud case, John was a true legal savant of our times,” Anderson said.

While himself a “giant,” Freeman didn’t hesitate to take on other giants. In the 1990s Freeman took on the tobacco industry and fought to lower investing fees, which saved retirees and investors billions, Freeman Engstrom said. That sort of experience translated into his law lessons.

“When you learned corporate law from John, however, you learned at least as much about suing a corporation as you did about creating one,” said former Law School Dean Robert Wilcox in a post on USC’s website.

“John was a fighter, an advocate, a champion of the consumer who might not have a voice if not for his. He did not shy away from challenging the power of a large corporation, the largest mutual funds, or a law firm if he thought they were mistreating others,” Wilcox wrote.

Steve Hamm, longtime friend who held a variety of top state jobs, said Freeman served as his mentor and moral and legal compass for decades.

“I turned to him many times over the years,” said Hamm, former state consumer advocate for the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs, former state Ethics Commission director and current senior advisor for the Office of Regulatory staff.

“If you didn’t want to know exactly what he was thinking, don’t ask him. He would give it to you straight. There were a few times when he told me, ‘Man, you really need to rethink what you’re doing’,” Hamm said.

“He was a stickler for detail and would tell his students to go the extra mile, saying, ‘If you think you have it covered, look again’,” Hamm said.

State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said Freeman’s ethics classes for lawyers’ continuing legal education were popular.

“Everybody wanted to sign up with John Freeman. You knew it was going to be entertaining and thought-provoking. People loved Professor Freeman,” said Hutto, a lawyer who had cases with Freeman and also used him as a witness.

Freeman’s legal stands coincided with the high principles that underpin good government, Hutto said. “He was in support of transparency, accountability, forthrightness and honesty. He was all about that.

“He was a guiding star; he always championed what was right,” Hutto said.

Family man

Freeman’s legacy extended beyond just his work.

“It’s noteworthy that he had an illustrious career with a national impact, and yet was a fully engaged family man,” said his daughter Gretchen Freeman Cappio. “He believed in having dinner with us every night he possibly could.”

His daughters are now renowned attorneys in their own right.

Freeman Engstrom is a professor at Stanford Law School who, following in her father’s footsteps, is a national expert in legal ethics, according to the school’s website. Freeman Cappio is an attorney at the Seattle law firm Keller Rohrback, LLP and she was a part of a multibillion-dollar settlement against Volkswagen for cheating on diesel emissions tests, according to her online bio.

Both are graduates of Dartmouth College. Freeman supported not only his daughters as they pursued their legal careers, but also promoted other, outstanding women lawyers, Freeman Cappio said.

While his daughters were attending Irmo High, Freeman volunteered on the school improvement council, Freeman Cappio said.

“The longer I practice law myself, the more I realize: he was an outlier in the best possible way — both personally and professionally,” Freeman Cappio said.

Freeman’s influence extended beyond just his immediate family. Stegmaier remembers meeting Freeman while he was attending high school with Freeman Cappio and was intimidating, but inspiring, both as a professional and as a father, he said.

“He made the mold for me. I’ve got 2 daughters of my own… I”m trying to do the same thing with my two daughters,” Stegmaier said.

A public voice

Throughout Freeman’s career, he often shared his legal expertise to broad audiences, speaking publicly to reporters on issues of the day, especially when it came to being quoted in stories involving possible public corruption.

Just weeks before he died, Freeman was quoted in The New York Times about the expanding scope of the fraud and embezzlement cases around suspended Lowcountry lawyer Alex Murdaugh.

“Where does it stop?” The Times quoted Freeman as saying about the investigations surrounding Murdaugh. “You can’t talk to anybody in South Carolina who isn’t talking about this case and is not just astonished by what’s going on.”

In 2018, Freeman was quoted in the Charleston Post & Courier about the slow pace of defendants being sentenced in an ongoing investigation into corruption in the S.C. General Assembly.

“Everybody is ready for this thing to be wound up,” Freeman told the newspaper. But “a lot of your complicated, murky cases – like an iceberg with a lot below the surface – sentencing takes a long time… this is worth being patient about.”

In 2020, Freeman told The State newspaper he was shocked at the enormity of ethical abuses in the SCANA utility fiasco that led to the $10 billion failure of a major nuclear plant construction project.

“This stands like a Mount Everest,” Freeman told The State. “Everyone was misled — the stock market, investors, regulators and ratepayers.”

Jay Bender, who has taught classes on media law and mass communications at USC and its law school, said of Freeman, “John had a very clear sense of right and wrong and was never reluctant to call public officials out for their failures, particularly in the area of ethics.”

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