Professing her innocence since her arrest 17 years ago, Kiera Newsome remains locked behind bars at the California Institution for Women in Corona. Jurors found her guilty of killing Christian Henton in South Los Angeles on April 16, 2001.
But is she guilty?
One of the California Innocence Project’s “California 12,” a list of men and women the organization contends should be freed from prison, Newsome asserts she was wrongly convicted. Sentenced to 60 years to life in prison, Newsome, now 35, believes she that one day she will be free.
In the report, SoCal Connected producer Gina Pollack outlines the case against Newsome and her advocates’ efforts to convince a judge to overturn her conviction. Newsome’s attorneys at Loyola Law School’s “Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic” in Los Angeles contend the then-17-year-old was in school nearly 10 miles away when a female shooter killed Henton, and cite questionable testimony from gang members at the time of the shooting.
Some facts about Newsome’s case did not make the report. Pollack spent four months researching and reporting on the Newsome case. Time constraints with the broadcast meant some elements could not make the piece. Here they are:
Key witness vanishes, prompting video testimony
A key witness, Joseph Cook, could not be located to testify in front of the jury when the trial got underway. A detective said that Cook had relocated to Mississippi and law enforcement efforts to find him had failed. Instead, a video recording of his testimony was played for the jury.
Newsome’s defense attorney, Anthony Tahan, and Flynn’s lawyer, Larry Williams, argued that wasn’t fair. Playing a recording did not enable them to cross-examine him in front of the jury.
But Judge Laura Ellison disagreed, saying he was questioned at the earlier proceeding where the testimony was recorded.
“It appears from the transcript itself that counsel were present, and were given an adequate opportunity to cross-examine,” Ellison said. “And counsel, in fact, did cross-examine Mr. Cook at that hearing, extensively…The court is satisfied.”
Tahan objected, but Ellison pushed forward, saying Cook was an important witness who could identify the shooter. The video played.
Cook’s testimony was “all over the place,” first pointing to Flynn as the killer and later pointing out Newsome, Pollack said. “He definitely seemed confused."
Witness testifies after jury deliberations had begun
In a highly unusual development, attorneys had completed their closing arguments when Deputy District Attorney Dara Williams asked to reopen the case. It was Day 3 of jury deliberations.
Prosecutors had been unable to locate witness Bobby Johnson to testify during the trial, but sheriff’s deputies had just arrested him on an unrelated matter. A computer check revealed he was wanted in Ellison’s courtroom.
According to a trial transcript, Tahan argued against the rare occurrence of reopening a case once it was already in deliberations, saying Newsome would be “unduly prejudiced” if the court allowed Johnson to take the stand. Tahan argued that since his case had rested, he would not be able to call witnesses to rebut Johnson’s testimony and said he had tailored his earlier closing arguments to fit the evidence already presented.
“Now if I’m forced to recant or switch around in front of the jury, I’m going to look like, you know, a fool, and I think this is a very – and I’m going to lose credibility, and I think that’s very prejudicial to my client,” Tahan said, a court transcript showed.
The prosecutor, Dara Williams, however, argued that Johnson’s testimony would “serve justice and fairness to the People of the state of California.”
Ellison allowed the testimony, saying jurors could not have had much time to deliberate anyway.
On the stand, Johnson said three women pulled up in a car. He said he saw two of their faces. He identified Newsome as the woman dressed in red who got out and fired the gunshot at Helton. He said she had a tattoo on her upper thigh.
“Are you certain of that?” Dara Williams asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Johnson answered.
Pollack said Tahan told her he spoke to some of the jurors after the guilty verdict was announced and “they told him that that they were ready to acquit Kiera after the trial, but when they heard that last testimony it felt very convincing to them and it swayed their opinion.”
When Kiera was first arrested, Newsome’s family dug into its savings to hire Inglewood attorney Zakeya Brookins, who, a few years later, was suspended by the California Bar Association when she admitted to misconduct in six cases, including failing to perform legal services competently, Bar association records show.
Brookins handled Newsome’s preliminary hearing, but Newsome’s family did not rehire her for the trial. Instead, Tahan took over.
Tahan, who spoke to SoCal Connected, but did not appear on camera, believed Newsome’s innocence was obvious, Pollack said. He took the case pro-bono – for free – thinking he could help her. The family collected about $600 to pay him, not enough for investigators and experts to support the case, Pollack said.
“This was Anthony Tahan’s first murder trial,” Pollack said. “He had heard Kiera's story and thought this was an easy win because of her alibi. He was really young at the time and he thought this would be a good way to get experience and get a murder trial under his belt that he could win.”
Charged as an adult, Newsome was convicted.
Loyola Law School’s Chris Hawthorne’s team of student attorneys cited “ineffective counsel” in their appeal of Newsome’s conviction, but the court denied their claim.
Despite that, Kiera's family still thinks of Tahan fondly.
"I can't say nothing bad about that man because I swear he loved our family," Kiera's mother, Desiray Newsome, said. "He fought to the end. Till he could fight no more."
Will Gov. Jerry Brown step in?
Newsome spent years behind bars writing letters until the Innocence Project took notice. Newsome’s advocates at the California Innocence Project and Loyola Law School hope Gov. Jerry Brown steps in before he leaves office. A recent development makes that hopeful.
Newsome’s story was highlighted during an Innocence March in September from UC Berkeley to the state capital.
“Part of what the Innocence Project is doing is trying to get the governor to grant clemency to the remaining members of the California 12 who are still incarcerated,” Pollack said. “They've had a clemency petition for Kiera on Gov. Brown’s desk since 2013. It seems like he never really has considered it until a couple weeks ago, when Kiera finally got an interview.”