"I was an enforced transplant of the Illinois DOC for the murder and armed robbery of someone that I didn’t know." An excerpt from Surviving Justice


On October 30, 1979, a white grocer named Mickey Cohen was shot and killed at his convenience store on the South Side of Chicago. Three regular customers witnessed the murder, and described the murderer as an African American man dressed in black. 

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I’m James Newsome from Chicago, Illinois. All my life I’ve lived there, with the exception of fifteen years, two months and four days, when I was an enforced transplant of the Illinois Department of Corrections for the murder and armed robbery of someone that I didn’t know.

Thirty-six hours after the crime occurred I was on the North Side of Chicago helping a friend move. On our way home to my friend’s residence we were stopped by the Chicago police on an unrelated matter—guns pointed at us and everything. There was an armed robbery that happened on the North Side. Somebody, at least the police were saying this, wrote my brother’s license plate down. I was using his car. We went to the police station and got that cleared up.

They took me from the police department to the South Side headquarters, Area 2. Area 2 is infamous for its brutality and torture. Police induce suspects to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. As we were driving to Area 2, they tried to get information. They said, “Well, we got the fingerprints.” The guy who robbed the store had handled some items and so there were fingerprints. They were trying to goad me into confessing. They said, “Oh, we have fingerprints.”

The police did have a set of fingerprints from the items that witnesses said the assailant touched, but the fingerprint examiner assigned to the case could not match them to James Newsome. At the time, the Chicago Police Department stored prints on paper cards.

At Area 2, two witnesses looked through a mugshot book and picked photographs of someone else—not Newsome.

An officer thought Newsome resembled the composite sketch of the suspect. Newsome was then put into a live lineup and the eyewitnesses identified him as the man who shot Mickey Cohen. One of the eyewitnesses, Anthony Rounds—who became a key witness on Newsome’s behalf in his 2001 civil trial—testified that when he was placed in front of the police lineup, he was told by officers to “Pick number three.” Newsome was number three.

An innocent person always holds out hope that the system will work. That’s the naiveté. You’re brought up that way, looking at Dragnet and all these law enforcement programs on TV. You’re induced to believe that the good guy always prevails. That’s a bunch of bullshit. The good guy ends up last.

My lawyer was a private attorney by the name of William Wise. I didn’t know anything about the law, so I’m thinking I’m getting good representation. Hindsight tells me that I wasn’t. He didn’t do any investigation whatsoever. If he had done any basic, rudimentary investigation, I wouldn’t have been found guilty. There’s no two ways about that…

I was out-resourced. My attorney was an asshole. He was trying to save overhead. He didn’t “want to spend any money. My family was poor. My family gave him $15,000. What we paid him was a lot of money for us. My uncle got a second mortgage on his building because I was facing capital murder.

I was sentenced to life, which is the flip side of the death sentence. Death row people get a little more attention, a little more scrutiny, but I didn’t want to take that chance. It’s a big gamble. Through the grace of God, I didn’t get it. I was sentenced to die in prison.

In September 1980, Newsome was convicted of murder and armed robbery. His conviction was based on the testimony of three eyewitnesses who had previously identified people other than Newsome as Cohen’s murderer.

One thing about being in prison and being a wrongfully incarcerated person—and understanding that things can be taken away from you so quickly—is that you take one step at a time and you don’t believe it until it actually happens. And because of the way I was put in, because of the mistrust I had for the system, anything could have happened. That’s not to say I’m paranoid. I have trust for things, people and systems and bureaucracies, things like that. I’m the kind of person who believes that the benefit of the doubt should be given to a person. I’m just really more grounded, more humble in my approach. I don’t jump up and down about things. This life is a short one. Prison has given me a perspective I probably wouldn’t have gained anywhere else. I like to have fun, I like to smile and laugh, I like to joke around. My not getting overly jubilant about my release was because of how bad I was treated with respect to them not letting me out the first day, the first year, the second year. The evidence never changed. The facts were always there.


An excerpt from Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, edited by Dave Eggers and Lola Vollen.

All books in the Voice of Witness series are 40% off until Sunday, August 13 at 23:59 PST. Click here to access the discount.

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