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Criminal Justice

Guilty until proven innocent

Eggers’ new book gives a voice to the wrongfully convicted

by Jessica Wigent

James Newsome served 15 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. As he sat next to well-known author Dave Eggers on the raised platform at Quimby’s on January 23, he alternately cracked jokes and searched for the words to describe his unimaginable experience.

Eggers features Newsome, along with 12 other people wrongfully convicted, in Surviving Justice, a book he edited with Lolla Vollen. During the discussion at Quimby’s, Eggers explained to the audience that many of the stories about the exonerated were “shaped in the context of a news item.” Eggers wanted to give those released the opportunity “to tell their stories in the way they choose.” He wanted them to talk about their lives, in their own words, “before they were victims of injustice and well after.” It is clear that he wants the focus not on himself but on the human toll of injustice.

In 1979, Mickey Cohen, the owner of a South Side grocery store, was shot and murdered. Thirty-six hours later on the North Side, Newsome and a friend were pulled over by the police in connection with an unrelated robbery. While in the station, police thought Newsome looked like the sketch they had from the eyewitnesses to Cohen’s murder. However, Newsome was three inches taller than the figure in the sketch, and had a mole on his nose that the suspect didn’t.The police weren’t satisfied with Newsome’s explanation of where he was the day before and took him to the Area 2 police station.

On the drive down, Newsome heard the police whispering about fingerprints; they warned him they had evidence of his guilt, that he should confess. At the station, Newsome agreed to be part of a lineup, thinking he would be cleared instantly. “I was number three [in the lineup],” Newsome said. To his bewilderment, all three eyewitnesses identified him as the man who murdered Cohen. What he didn’t know was that the police had told the witnesses to choose number three before they even saw the men in the lineup.

Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern, wrote in a 2001 report that “erroneous eyewitness testimony—whether offered in good faith or perjury—is no doubt the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the United States criminal justice system.”

Even though an all-white jury was chosen to decide Newsome’s fate, he doesn’t blame racism for his conviction. “I’m not the kind of person who thinks you have to have an all-black jury. Everybody understands right and wrong,” he told the nodding Quimby’s audience. Instead, Newsome explains that the district attorney did an excellent job; he even laughed when he said the District Attorney was as good as Perry Mason. “I never met a prosecutor who believed anybody was wrongfully convicted,” he jokingly informed the standing-room only crowd. It was his defense attorney who sent him to jail, Newsome still believes, not the jury. Based solely on the testimony of the eyewitnesses (because the fingerprints never matched), Newsome was convicted and given a natural life sentence, meaning he would live in prison until the day he died.

To pass the time once incarcerated, Newsome reports in Surviving Justice, he educated himself. “I ate books,” he writes. Were he not given a job at the prison library, “I wouldn’t be talking to you.” While there, Newsome began to study the law. He helped other prisoners with their cases. He earned his high school diploma, a Bachelor’s degree in legal education administration from Northeastern Illinois University and his master’s degree in political injustice studies from Governor’s State University.

Unlike the 174 people who have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, all Newsome had were the fingerprints the police gathered from the crime scene. “I had to become a bounty hunter behind prison walls,” he proudly said. As technology became more advanced, Newsome petitioned the Chicago Police Department to run the unidentified fingerprints taken from the crime scene against those in their database. The prints were run in 1989 and matched a man already serving a life sentence for murder. Newsome was not informed of this new evidence. It wasn’t until 1994, when his lawyers again forced the CPD to run the fingerprints, that this information was released.


On the day of his release Newsome asked to be taken home the long way. “For the first time in 15 years I saw trees.” In a later civil trial, when he proved that two of the detectives on his case had framed him by coaching eyewitnesses, a jury awarded Newsome $1 million dollars for every year he had spent in prison.

Newsome’s voice doesn’t quiver with rage when he retells his story. Instead he quietly and matter-of-factly explains to the audience, “I was resurrected from hell.”
Every day, when he heads out of his house, Newsome calls his home phone and leaves a message indicating where he’s going. He’s never without an alibi these days, just in case.

Sue Gauger, the wife of Gary Gauger, an Illinois man wrongfully convicted of murdering his parents, attended the discussion at Quimby’s. When I asked her how her husband was doing, and why he wasn’t contributing, she explained that it’s difficult for Gauger to keep reliving his experience. “It just triggers it all,” she said. “He has anxiety attacks going two miles to dinner.” Gauger was also awarded damages in a civil trial but there are still insurmountable expenses. “It took $210,000 of legal fees to prove he was wrongfully convicted.”

The editors of Surviving Justice note that the average wrongfully convicted prisoner spends twelve years behind bars, but according to the website of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law(, only 21 states have compensation statutes which allow the wrongfully convicted to seek damages. This is not a simple process; if the defendant was coerced into signing a false confession, or admitted guilt at any time during his trial or parole hearings, even if only to keep from receiving the death penalty, the chances of getting damages are greatly reduced. In Texas, all prisoners released, whether or not they were wrongfully convicted, are given $50 for a bus ticket.

The system is changing. In 2004, the Justice for All Act guaranteed all those wrongfully convicted on federal crimes $50,000 for every year of imprisonment, and $100,000 per year for every person on death row. But is it enough? Rolando Cruz, the recently exonerated Chicagoan awarded $9 million for his wrongful conviction, lamented that no amount of money can give him back the eleven years he lost in prison. “This isn’t no lottery ticket,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “this is my life.”


What if, instead of a life sentence, Newsome had been given the death penalty? Would he have been executed before he had time to prove his innocence? According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the more than 300 people fully exonerated, 122 were on death row awaiting lethal injection. Two people who died in jail awaiting the death penalty have been posthumously exonerated. Apparently the very real fear of executing an innocent person—or having already done so—is not enough to change many people’s minds.

On January 30, the American Bar Association released a damaging report on the justice system in the state of Georgia, which called for a moratorium on all executions until further investigation. The governor, Sonny Perdue, has so far refused to stop executions.

In a January 26 New York Times op-ed article, Joshua Marquis, Vice President of the National District Attorney’s Association wrote, “Americans should be far more worried about the wrongfully freed than the wrongfully convicted.”

Hugo Holland, a District Attorney in Louisiana when Calvin Willis was exonerated of rape after 22 years in prison, explained in Surviving Justice, “out of the thousands and thousands and thousands of people I’ve personally put in jail, me alone…there are only a couple cases where this happened. So statistically it’s insignificant.”

In 2005, 18 people were released from prison after being wrongfully convicted.
On January 23, as Newsome and Eggers spoke at Quimby’s, Alan Crotzer, a Florida man who had served 24 years of a 130-year sentence, was released after DNA testing proved his innocence. He was the second person to be released in 2006.

According to Amnesty International, more than 3,400 people currently sit on death row. In 2006, seven people have been executed as of February 10. What if any one of them were innocent?

Fourteen more people are scheduled to die by the time you read this article.

MARCH 2006