By Brett Thomas, BBT Law LLC
The content for this blog was from the Wrongful Convictions podcast with Jason Flom, which is available on any music streaming service. Kiera's story is just one of many horrifying stories of someone who has been wrongfully convicted and the lasting damage it causes. The Criminal Justice Section will be posting stories like this throughout the remainder of 2021.
At the turn of the 21st century, gang culture dominated South Central Los Angeles. The two most prevalent gangs were the 11 Deuce Hoover and the Block Crips. Kiera Newsome's father, like most young men, had gravitated toward the gang lifestyle, so she was raised by her mother. Kiera's mother emphasized the importance of education and made sure her kids were receiving one.
As a 13-year-old, Kiera met and started dating Marquel Norman. Marquel was a straight-A student; however, he moved back in with his crack-addicted mother when his grandmother died. Kiera would sneak Marquel and his siblings food when they didn't have anything to eat. In search of a way to provide money and protection for his family, Marquel ultimately joined 11 Deuce Hoover. This action made Kiera extremely upset, but Marquel was optimistic about the benefits and even believed that he would keep his grades up while being part of the gang. Kiera got a tattoo of Marquis’ name on her right upper thigh after losing a bet that Marquis's grades would fall the semester after he joined the gang – this tattoo became important later in her life. After that first semester, Marquel became more involved with the gang and saw Kiera less often. Kiera remembers her mother saying, "I'm going to end up walking you to jail to see this boy, or to a graveyard to see this boy."
On December 10, 2000, the fears of Kiera's mother were realized. Marquel had on all black and was standing with Kiera as a car drove down the street looking at them. By the time they turned around, the men had exited the vehicle and approached, each with something covering their extended arm. Marquel pushed Kiera away, and she ran inside as the men opened fire. She remembers Marquel turning toward her while he was on the ground and seeing a gash on his face – she knew he had been shot. Marquel died from his injuries.
Kiera, now a witness to the murder of her boyfriend, was in danger. Her principal, Mr. McGlen, called Kiera's mother to discuss how to protect her. Mr. McGlen knew gang members came into school occasionally to search for witnesses, and he knew Kiera would not be safe. The principal suggested Kiera attend the lockdown school used in the juvenile justice system because it was safer. Kiera's new school required her to wear a uniform – a white polo shirt and black pants. Students had to be buzzed in and out the front door by the secretary.
Additionally, students had to sign in at 8:30 a.m., and teachers performed attendance checks throughout the day. The administration called the police if a student was missing. The back door of the building led to a locked gate in front of another locked gate with barbed wire.
On April 15, 2001, Easter Sunday, three Hoover members were gunned down at Red's Liquor Store by a group of Block Crips. One of the victims was named Rudy. The next day, April 16, around 11 a.m., three black women, including Rudy's girlfriend Dawnyell Flynn (aka Astro), pulled up to a group of Block Crips, including Christian Henton Shawntaye Allen, Ryan Foust, Bobby Johnson and Joe Cook. The driver was described as a woman in her early 20s, exited the vehicle dressed in all red - a visor, tube top, corduroy shorts and sneakers. She was pretty tall, had a lazy eye and a name tattooed on her right upper thigh. She asked the men if they knew Nakia, to which they replied, "no." As she walked back to her car, she turned and fired one shot into the group, killing Christian Henton.
On the morning of the Henton’s murder, 17-year-old Kiera was in class. Her teacher, Rebecca Woodruff, described the classroom as very small, with only one door. Ms. Woodruff positioned her desk in a manner that required students to walk past her to exit the classroom; this way, she would know if someone left. Kiera's desk was six to seven feet away from Ms. Woodruff’s desk, so it would have been near impossible to leave without being seen. Ms. Woodruff remembers Kiera being at school that specific day because she noticed purple braids in her hair. She also had received six completed assignments from Kiera, submitted periodically during the day.
In 2001, detectives had appeared at Kiera's house several times trying to get her to put Marquel’s murder on a Block Crip, but she wouldn't do it. On June 5, 2001, the police took Kiera to the precinct under the pretense of finding her boyfriend's killer. As she left the house, her father told her, "the longest they can hold you is 72 hours." Once at the station, the reason she was there became clear. An officer walked around the corner holding a poster with her picture that said, "Wanted for Murder," and Kiera felt like her soul left her body. She asked, "Murder? Who did I murder?" Kiera was then taken to a room and stripped-searched in front of other men by a deputy who was looking for tattoos.
After being strip-searched, Kiera was questioned by the police about the murder of Christian Henton being in retaliation for Marquel's death. Kiera was confused because she didn't know anything about the incident. She became even more confused when the police started talking about someone named "Astro." However, as she began to put the timeline together, she became hopeful because she was in school at the time of the murder. Surely there would be proof she was in school and everything would be okay. Kiera's parents took her school attendance records to the detectives, who only looked into the alibi upon receipt of the documents.
Kiera was charged with murder and booked into the juvenile system despite her solid alibi. She was relocated to the women's jail once she turned 18. Her co-defendant, Dawnyell Flynn, was being held at the same facility. Kiera's attorney obtained a court order keeping the women separated at the jail. The first time Kiera met Astro was in court and Astro said to Kiera, "I need you to take this one for me – I need you to go to trial with me." Once the proceedings began, Kiera's attorney asked for the case to be severed. Upon hearing this, Astro freaked out and started screaming, spat on Kiera and was removed from the courtroom.
Once Kiera was back at the jail, Astro circulated word that Kiera was a snitch, and the other inmates treated her accordingly. At the next court date, deputies put Kiera and Astro on the same floor; despite the court order to separate them. As Kiera was walking by, someone yelled, "Snitch!" and people, including Astro, attacked her. Astro pinned Kiera down and said, "Don't do anything; we see everything."
The judge ultimately did not sever the trial, and the trial was set for December 4, 2002. Just before trial, Kiera's attorney filed a motion to dismiss based on Ms. Woodruff's testimony that she had been at school all day on the date of the incident. The judge granted the motion, and Kiera was released. The nightmare seemed to be over…until a few hours later.
The DA re-filed charges against Kiera within six hours of her release. The podcast did not go into detail on why this happened. When the police re-arrested Kiera, the detective did not immediately take her to the precinct. Instead, he took Kiera to a motel and told her that if she had sex with him, he would give her an hour to run. Kiera declined, and the officer took her to the police station where, while being re-booked, the detective made a crude sexual joke, which drew laughs from the others in the room.
In July 2003, Kiera and Astro were tried together for charges related to the murder of Christian Henton. A significant reason for the state charging both women was because each had a name tattooed on their upper right thigh. Astro’s tattoo was low enough to be seen if she were wearing shorts; Kiera’s was very high, close to her hip bone. In the pretrial hearing, the DA allowed Astro's attorney to have his client stand up and pull up her pant leg (a few inches above her knee) to show she didn't have a tattoo on her right leg. For some reason, the defense attorney did not object or request his client be allowed to do the same. Therefore, the jury believed that Kiera was the only person with a name tattooed on her right upper thigh.
During the state's presentation of evidence, they called a "gang expert," an officer who works in the neighborhood and only investigated gang-related cases. In practice, gang expert evidence typically targets black and brown youth. The prosecution conjures fear in the jurors and convinces them that the person sitting at the defense table is capable of anything, even if there is a lack of supporting evidence.
In Kiera's case, the "expert" testified that Kiera was capable of sneaking out of the back door of her lockdown school, driving 13 miles across town, changing clothes, committing a murder, changing back into her school clothes and discarding the other garments, going back to school and re-entering her classroom without anyone noticing Additionally, the "expert" testified falsely that Kiera's tattoo was proof she was a gang member because a person would not have a name tattooed on their thigh unless they were a gang member. He went on to say that any non-gang member found with a name tattooed on their right thigh would be shot on sight.
Eyewitnesses to the shooting did not want to be involved because there was a deep distrust of the police. Joe Cook did not appear in court because he fled to Mississippi and was unable to be found. Ryan Foust only appeared in court because the police threatened to arrest him in another matter. The police had to detain Bobby Jonson to appear in court. None of the witnesses cared about what happened in court because this issue was between the Hoovers and the Crips. They didn't care who went down for it because they only cared about what would happen in the street. Everyone knew who committed this crime, and everyone knew it wasn't Kiera.
The defense presented evidence regarding the security of Kiera's school and that on the date of the shooting, Kiera signed into school at 8:30 a.m. and was marked present at 10:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. Ms. Woodruff testified that Kiera was present in class and Kiera's attorney admitted her assignments into evidence. Shawntaye Allen, an eyewitness called by the state, testified that he knew Kiera from school, and she was not in the car on the shooting date.
The jury read the verdict of Astro first, acquitting her of all charges. They then read their verdict as to Kiera, finding her guilty of first-degree murder with a firearm enhancement. Oddly, the jury found Kiera not guilty of the attempted murder of Shawntaye Allen, even though it was clear that there was only one shooter. After the verdict, Astro looked at Kiera, scoffed, and said, "that's what snitches get." Astro was convicted of a drug-related murder in Las Vegas a few years later.
The prison classified Kiera as a Hoover gang member, however, she constantly got into fights with Hoover gang members because word that Kiera snitched on Astro made its way around the prison. Interestingly, the Block Crips left Kiera alone because they knew the truth about who committed the murder for which Kiera was serving time.
Kiera sent several letters to the California Innocence Project while serving her sentence, asking them to look into her case. Unfortunately, she kept receiving denial letters due to the volume of claims the California Innocence Project handled. Kiera became more and more depressed and hit a breaking point where she decided to commit suicide. On the day she was going to kill herself, Kiera received an acceptance letter from the California Innocence Project, which gave her hope and a reason to live.
Since she was a juvenile when at the time of the crime, the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic at Loyola (JIFS) was able to take her case, JIFS is student-run with faculty supervision. In 2013, JIFS received Kiera's case from the California Innocence Project and got to work talking to people in Kiera's neighborhood and gathering statements. They contacted a documentary filmmaker filming a movie about the community, who connected them to Ryan Foust. Foust said he knows it was not Kiera who committed the murder, but he was under pressure from law enforcement and his family to identify someone.
When he went to the police station, the police handed him a six-pack of mugshots with Kiera's face already circled. It was clear that was who the officers wanted him to pick, so Foust put his initials under the circled picture. He continued with his in-court testimony because he was afraid of being arrested for stealing a bottle of vodka. Joe Cook told the students he didn't want to help or be involved in any way but also said the woman who pulled her pants leg up at the trial was the shooter. Another witness said Astro showed up at his apartment asking people to help her retaliate for Rudy's death. Before she left, she told him something is about to go down; he might want to lay low for a while. Shortly after that, he heard sirens.
Chris Hawthorne was the lead attorney on Kiara’s case and he filed a habeas corpus petition with the convicting court. At the hearing, Chris presented all the evidence collected by JIFS, but the court denied Kiera's petition. While planning his next move, Chris was contacted by the California Innocence Project because they needed another person for their California 12 March. In 2013, the California Innocence Project identified 12 people convicted of crimes with overwhelming proof of innocence and no remaining legal avenues to gain their freedom. Three attorneys from the California Innocence Project walked from San Diego to Sacramento to raise awareness for the cause and deliver clemency petitions for the twelve wrongfully convicted people to the Governor's desk. Chris and Kiera signed on and hoped the Governor Jerry Brown would grant the petition.
Governor Brown received the California 12 clemency petitions at the beginning of his term and did not take immediate action. However, near the end of Governor Brown's term, Chris received a phone call from a board of parole hearing investigator requesting to meet and discuss Kiera's case. He met with the representative and spent two hours laying out Kiera's case. At the end of the meeting, the person thanked him, and that was it; he didn't hear anything else. Finally, on Christmas Eve, 2019, Chris received a phone call from Christina Lindquist at the Governor's Office who told him she had just spoken to Kiera. Kiera's sentence was commuted to 20 years to life, and she would be eligible for parole immediately.
Kiera thought she was going home right away; she did not realize she still had to go in front of the parole board. In April of 2020, she finally went in front of the parole board, who released her. On April 7, 2020, after 19 years in prison for a crime she didn't commit, Kiera walked out of prison. She described her excitement as she walked out to see her family, all the students who had worked on her case, and the top two people outside her family – her fiancé and Chris. She knew she was not supposed to touch them due to COVID-19 but couldn't help giving Chris a big hug.
Kiera was seven months pregnant when the podcast was released. She is currently trying to move on with her life and be happy but it is difficult. Kiera was released from prison, but she has not been exonerated. She has several college degrees but is having a hard time finding work because of her conviction. Kiera is trying to stay positive and believes it will all work out eventually.
There is a glimmer of hope for Kiera's exoneration because the new district attorney is revamping the conviction integrity unit. Chris is hopeful that Kiera's case will be reviewed, and her conviction will be overturned. If you would like to help support Kiera, there is a petition on change.org to support Kiera's exoneration.
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