CRIME STORY has received permission to feature profiles of exonerees represented by the California Innocence Project (CIP). The CIP reviews more than 2,000 claims of innocence each year and since its founding in 1999 has secured the release of dozens of innocent people who may otherwise have spent the rest of their lives wrongfully incarcerated.
On the morning of April 16, 2001, a car carrying three young Black women stopped before a group of men, members of the Block Crips, standing outside a house in South LA. One of the women got out of the car, sauntered up to the house and knocked on the front door; no one answered. The woman then turned and approached the men gathered outside, engaged them in a brief conversation, and asked if they knew where “Nakia” lived. The men told her they didn’t know. The woman walked back towards the car, then suddenly turned around and fired a handgun into the group of men, one of whom was hit and fatally wounded. All three women drove off. Witnesses described the shooter as having a “lazy eye” and wearing an all-red outfit — red tube top, red corduroy shorts, red visor — with a name tattooed on one thigh.
That morning, while the shooting was taking place, Kiera Newsome was in class at Crenshaw SEA Charter School, 13 miles away. Procedures at the school were quite rigid, with small classes and continuous adult supervision. Students were expected to sign in and out of school, attendance was taken several times daily, and students were unable to leave school grounds without permission. Students also wore uniforms, consisting of black pants and a white polo shirt.
In July 2003, Kiera was convicted of first-degree murder with a firearm enhancement. Her co-defendant, Dawnyell Flynn, the alleged driver of the vehicle, was acquitted on all charges. At trial, the prosecution relied on eyewitness testimony of the victims from the shooting, though the men who had been shot at admitted to being high on marijuana at the time. One of the men identified a completely different person than Kiera in a photo lineup. Furthermore, Kiera does not have the “lazy eye” that an eyewitness identified as characteristic of the shooter. At trial, Kiera’s defense team provided written evidence of her attendance at all of her classes at SEA Charter School the day of the murder, testimony from her teacher verifying her presence in class, and dated assignments from class that morning. However, the prosecution drew a different picture: after signing into class, Kiera could have slipped out the back gate of her school, changed her clothes on the 13-mile drive to the crime scene, committed the crime, changed her clothes again on the drive back to school, and appeared in the classroom in time for the noon lunch head count.
Despite a high rate of error (according to the Innocence Project, as many as 1 in 4 stranger eyewitness identifications are wrong), eyewitness identifications are considered some of the most powerful evidence against a suspect. An in-court eyewitness identification of a perpetrator is incredibly powerful to a jury. In fact, with the exception of DNA evidence, nothing can be more damning for a criminal defendant. But a witness’s identification can be, and often is, mistaken. Human memory is fragile and extremely malleable; it can be incomplete and faulty even as we perceive an event. After a crime, factors like stress, the short duration of the incident, and the presence of a weapon can affect witnesses’ recall. Identifications can also be influenced by a witness’s biases and by subtle cues from police and prosecutors. Nationally, 69% of DNA exonerations — 252 out of 367 cases — have involved eyewitness misidentification, making it the leading contributing cause of these wrongful convictions. Further, the National Registry of Exonerations has identified at least 450 non-DNA-based exonerations involving eyewitness misidentification. Cross-racial eyewitness identifications in particular are known to be incredibly suspect: of those 252 mistaken identification cases, nearly half involved a witness and suspect of different races.
The California Innocence Project investigated Kiera’s case and found several witnesses who confirmed that Kiera was not the shooter and that she had been set up. Because Kiera was a juvenile at the time of her conviction, CIP requested assistance from the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic (JIFS) at Loyola Law School. JIFS filed a clemency petition on Kiera’s behalf, and, on Christmas Eve 2018, Governor Jerry Brown commuted Kiera’s sentence, making her eligible for parole. On April 7, 2020, Kiera walked out of prison a free woman after serving nearly 19 years in prison for a crime she did not commit.