Feb. 20, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 11

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    In search of justice

    Center seeks compensation for man wrongfully convicted of murder After serving 15 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, James Newsome was released, thanks in part to the efforts of a University law professor. Now the Law School's MacArthur Justice Center has filed a $60 million lawsuit against Chicago police on Newsome's behalf.

    Although Newsome was convicted of the 1979 murder of grocery-store owner Edward Cohen, fingerprints taken at the time have since led to the identification of another man as the killer.

    "Mr. Newsome spent over 15 long and arduous years in prison, most of those years in maximum security prisons of the State of Illinois," said Locke Bowman, lecturer in the Law School and Legal Director of the MacArthur Justice Center. "Mr. Newsome entered the Illinois prison system a non-criminally oriented person with no prior convictions and with no street gang affiliation. As such, he lived in constant fear of physical assault by gang members."

    The suit, filed late last year, seeks $15 million -- $1 million for each year -- in compensatory damages against members of the Chicago Police Department. It also asks for $45 million in punitive damages. "It's a pittance in comparison to the things he endured during those years and the psychological effects he still endures today," Bowman said.

    The MacArthur Justice Center is also negotiating with the Illinois Court of Claims, which provides limited compensation to people who are pardoned after being unlawfully incarcerated.

    The Law School became involved in Newsome's case 10 years ago, when Norval Morris, the Julius Kreeger Professor in the Law School, became acquainted with Newsome at Stateville Prison. Newsome, a legal assistant in the prison library, helped Morris in an investigation of conditions at Stateville for a federal district court.

    Several attorneys as well as a professor and a student from Illinois Institute of Technology-Kent College of Law worked with Morris until Newsome was freed. Morris then referred Newsome to the MacArthur Justice Center for help in obtaining compensation.

    The MacArthur Justice Center is a public-interest law firm based at the Law School. Attorneys and Law School students litigate cases that involve significant constitutional issues and that promote the fair and effective operation of the criminal justice system. Cases litigated by the center include the representation of the first death row inmate in Illinois to successfully file a petition challenging his death sentence.

    Bowman said the Newsome case is complicated and he expects negotiations to take several years. Students in the Law School will assist Bowman in researching and preparing the case as it wends its way through the judicial system.

    The suit charges that police "falsely imprisoned and maliciously prosecuted . . . Newsome in 1979 by arresting [him] on a bogus charge; by holding Mr. Newsome and charging him with murder without any probable cause whatsoever; and by persuading eyewitnesses to the murder to . . . falsely identify Mr. Newsome as Mr. Cohen's murderer . . . "

    It took the implementation of modern technology to ultimately lead police to the real killer. At the time of the murder, Chicago police did not have the means to match crime-scene fingerprints to those of everyone arrested by Chicago officers -- matches could be found only if compared with a specific suspect. In 1986, police acquired the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. But it wasn't until eight years later that a latent-print examiner in the Fingerprint Identification Section discovered that the crime-scene prints matched those of David Emerson, who had been arrested by Chicago police many times and is currently on death row for another murder.

    In December 1994, Cook County Circuit Court vacated Newsome's conviction "on the ground that it had been obtained as a result of constructive fraud upon the court." Newsome was released to home confinement. In January 1995, the State's Attorney's office decided not to retry Newsome for the Cohen murder. Later that year, Gov. Jim Edgar granted Newsome a full pardon on grounds of innocence and had his criminal record expunged.

    -- Catherine Behan