Tough-as-nails, grown men are moved to tears when talking about her. Many who cross this law professor’s path say she changed the arc of their lives.
Theresa Newman, though, doesn’t concern herself with praise. The long-time co-director of Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic keeps her profile low, eyes wide open, and her mind on the critical facts at hand: finding freedom.
Newman and the clinic’s students and staff work inexhaustibly to help innocent people get out of prison. They are dogged about every case they spearhead. A resolution can take years.
In a recent appearance at Elon University, Theresa Newman titled her talk: “Waiting Is a Beast.” In a recent interview with me, she took on all questions. This text has been edited for brevity.
When you hear the words, "he will be released," and when you see them come out of prison, tell me what you feel.
Newman: I would like to feel joy, but I don’t. I feel great, great relief, and certainly happiness for our clients and for the students who have worked on their cases – but I am also deeply saddened. We can’t return the years they’ve lost.
If you weren't working to free the innocent and educate students, what other pursuit do you think you would have chosen?
Newman: I imagine myself working with children, catching them before they get caught up in the criminal justice system.
What tells you that a given law student has what it takes to do this kind of painstaking research – that they also have the fire within?
Newman: Even the most cautious become totally committed when they meet the client.They realize it’s not an academic exercise.
People, especially those men exonerated, say extraordinary things about you. Are you as humble and modest as you seem?
Newman: This question made me blush. I am called “Pollyanna” by my colleagues sometimes, but I genuinely believe in the essential goodness of most people – as a starting principle.
You seem to epitomize the phrase “nose to the grindstone.”
Newman: Our clients will be in prison until we convince a district attorney and/or a judge that they were wrongfully convicted. That’s remarkably motivating.
You seem to be creating legions of people devoted to this kind of justice.
Newman: There was a time that I thought innocent people were rarely if ever convicted. I was so wrong, and part of my mission is sharing the truth.
When you were little, what did you want to be?
Newman: I was the middle child of FIVE, so my dreams had very short horizons: Protecting my space in the closet I shared with two sisters, getting to the (one!) bathroom first, and wrangling dish duty on a night with few pots and pans.
When I worked for a forensic crime lab, time and again it was minorities, especially African-Americans, who were wrongly convicted. Not always, of course. I assume you see that in the “actual innocence” field.
Newman: Race certainly plays a significant role in wrongful convictions, from unintentional eyewitness misidentifications to intentional racial profiling. In one of our cases, a police officer announced that the primary suspect, who was white, was not the type of person who could have committed a particularly brutal attack, but our client, who is black, certainly could have.
You were nominated to be a CNN Hero. There’s a website called newmanhero.com. Observations?
Newman: I was touched. Though few believe it because I am so talkative, I am a bit shy and resist attention, so this kind of thing is a bit embarrassing.
What do you hear that is most disturbing about life behind bars?
Newman: The violence is the most disturbing but also deeply concerning is the loneliness. They are so alone, isolated in their innocence.
How do you think Duke's program compares, say, to Northwestern’s or other notable programs?
Newman: I’m choosing not to compare to those other great ones. Our strength is our students. They are remarkable.
What did your parents do?
Newman: My father was an airline mechanic, and my mother mainly managed the house. They made all of us exceedingly conscientious and skeptical: “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.”
What do you are your most effective qualities?
Newman: I suppose my curiosity, compassion and willingness to work very hard.
What should the state or country be doing differently in the wrongful-convictions arena?
Newman: What we have noticed in North Carolina is a retrenchment, with many officials (DAs, especially) turning away from an impressive, though short, period of collaboration. We need a return to a mutual interest in getting to the bottom of things.
Who out there in the world motivates you most?
Newman: Maddy deLone of the Innocence Project (in New York), who is patient and inclusive, and Jim Coleman, my clinic co-director, who is keenly intelligent, clear thinking and unfailingly honest. But I am most inspired by our clients, those who somehow wake up every morning, innocent but still hopeful. If they don’t sink into despair, we can’t either.
You can reach Tom Gasparoli at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-219-0042.