Valerie Newman’s passion for getting innocent people out of prison leads to new role.
Anyone who steps inside Valerie Newman’s Detroit office at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice is greeted by a colorful, framed poster emblazoned with these words from the Torah: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.” Newman calls the biblical quote from Deuteronomy her “life model” — it’s a daily reminder of her passion and purpose. She is an attorney and director of the new Conviction Integrity Unit, launched by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office at the start of this year. Her mission is to get innocent people out of prison.
“When someone’s maintaining their innocence, I trust what people tell me,” Newman says. “But, trust is not enough. So then you start back at square one. You start with the police file; you read every single witness statement and then you work the case forward. You don’t assume what someone else assumed — I’m going to read everything myself, and I’m going to come to my own conclusions about where the evidence leads.”
In several high-profile cases, Newman’s conclusions have helped to get innocent people freed. Among them is Davontae Sanford, who was convicted for a quadruple drug-related murder at just 14 years old. Sanford served nearly nine years in prison before he was released in June 2016. Newman and other attorneys who fought hard for the teen argued that he falsely confessed. A professional hitman also confessed to the crimes. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office still considers the Sanford case “under investigation” so Newman was not able to talk about it, but at the time of Sanford’s release, she told CNN: “When you work for years to shine light on an injustice and your work comes to fruition in a positive manner, it’s extremely gratifying.”
In another widely publicized case, Newman helped win the release of Raymond and Thomas Highers, two brothers who were wrongfully convicted in a 1987 murder. They were released after 25 years in prison when a new witness came forward and new evidence came to light.
“Her remarkable dedication does not end with representation,” says Newman’s father, James Newman. “[Valerie] continues to be involved with her clients, helping these men and others rebuild their lives.”
First Man Freed
Richard Phillips, 71, is the first man to be released following a review of his case by the Conviction Integrity Unit. He spent 45 years in prison for a murder he always maintained he did not commit. This March, he was finally freed.
“It would be irresponsible and ethically inappropriate not to investigate these cases,” Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a press release. “The system failed [Mr. Phillips.] Nothing I can say will bring back the years of his life spent in prison.”
After an exhaustive review of the evidence, Newman and her team concluded that false testimony from a witness led to Phillips’ wrongful conviction so many decades ago.
“It’s like a spider web; it’s all spun,” she says of the cases she reviews. “You’re just following every thread to see where it leads, and you don’t know where it’s going to lead. You can’t start out with any preconceptions. Very often in innocence cases, what happens is people make too many assumptions, then they get tunnel vision and they wind up consciously or unconsciously building a case around those assumptions.”
The system, she says, is subject to human error. Newman estimates there are thousands of people in prison right now across the country for crimes they did not commit. Her mission is not only to get innocent people released, but to do whatever she can to repair flaws in the system. Thanks to her, significant reforms have already been adopted on the state and federal level, and Newman has received numerous accolades for her work. Currently, the Conviction Integrity Unit has more than 300 requests for investigation.
“When you set up a unit like this, I think it sends a very clear message that the integrity of the justice system matters,” she says.
Newman says her Jewish roots, growing up in Oak Park and attending Congregation Beth Shalom with her family, helped her establish an early sense of justice.
“Learning about how people throughout history have been treated so unfairly — that is something that’s resonated with me my whole life,” she says.
Newman graduated from Berkley High School, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University Law School. At first, she thought she’d pursue environmental law. But, a job with Legal Aid in New York doing criminal defense work while in law school changed her life. Newman says she was exposed to the “underdog side” of being a defense attorney. The job was fast-paced, intellectually challenging and fun. She was hooked.
After that, Newman worked for the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office for more than 20 years. She also taught at the University of Michigan for more than a decade.
“The Appellate Defender Office wound up being a great fit for me,” Newman says. “I got to do everything: argue in the Court of Appeals, argue in Michigan Supreme Court, argue in the trial court and the federal court — it took me all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court twice.”
Newman’s decision to take on her latest role — after years of butting heads with Wayne County prosecutors as a criminal defense attorney — caught many people by surprise. But she says she simply saw the chance to make a positive impact.
“A lot of people were very shocked that I left where I was to come here,” Newman says. “But, I’m thrilled to be here. I love what I do. It’s such an opportunity to do good in the world — that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with my law degree.”
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit will only review cases prosecuted in Wayne County. The defendant must claim that he or she is innocent and there must be new evidence in the case. Forms can be found online, or claims can be submitted by mail to the Conviction Integrity Unit, Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, 1441 St. Antoine, Detroit, MI 48226.