The Commercial Appeal
SWCC PLAYER WINS IN AND ON COURT
The most terrifying part? That’s easy. Marshun Newell doesn’t hesitate.
No, it was not the moment he was arrested at the Bluff City Classic, when a sheriff’s deputy cuffed him and led him away as he was watching a game.
It was not the moment some weeks later, after he made bail, when half a dozen cop cars surrounded him when he was walking to basketball practice at Southwest Community College, and took him back to jail.
It was not his first night in a cell, which he will always remember because of the noise. So much talking. Caged men talking. Making it impossible to sleep or to think.
No, the most terrifying part was not the grim parade of cellmates, men charged with armed robbery or child abuse or rape. It was not nearly 10 full months he spent awaiting trial for a whole list of crimes — arson, especially aggravated robbery, attempted second-degree murder, six separate counts of assault — Newell said he didn’t commit.
“It was standing to hear the verdict,” Newell said. “I knew I wasn’t guilty, but you never know what’s going to happen next.”
Could be freedom. Could be prison.
“You’re totally helpless, standing there,” he said. “You just have to believe it’s going to be OK.”
IT STARTS WITH BELIEF
It is not fashionable to believe these days. In anyone or anything.
If you believed in Lance Armstrong, you’re an idiot. If you believed in Joe Paterno, you’re a chump. If you be-
lieved in Manti Te’o, you could not look more ridiculous. Believing is a sucker’s play.
So this story is preposterous. You should feel free to roll your eyes. Or weep. Or applaud. Or maybe a little of all three.
Newell, 22, is a child of innercity Memphis who believed in the judicial system. Who believed he could not possibly go to jail for crimes he says he didn’t commit.
“I always believed I was going home,” he said. See? Ridiculous. But then there’s Kamilah Turner, 35, a public defender who believed in something even more outlandish.
“I believe in Marshun,” she said. “I still do.”
Understand, defense lawyers never believe in the guilt or innocence of their clients. It’s not part of the job. The job is to work hard, defend their clients, and then let the jury figure out the rest.
Turner knew this as well as anyone. Her father, Melvin, was a longtime defense lawyer.
“It’s dangerous to believe in your clients,” she said. “It’s something I try not to do.”
And then, sitting in court in November, 2010, Turner made the acquaintance of Marshun Newell.
“He said he couldn’t afford a lawyer and my number is the one that came up,” she said. “I remember thinking he looked really young. That was it. And, then, when I started talking to him, I started to think, ‘You know what? He might not have done any of this.’ ”
The charges were staggering, enough to send Newell away for the rest of his life. They were based on two separate incidents, both involving the same victims, or alleged victims, or you may call them whatever you like.
Incident One: On June 16, 2010, a man named Salaam Starks was shot and paralyzed at the threebedroom house on Seattle Street that Newell has always called home. The alleged shooter was Delmonta Hill, Newell’s brother. Starks said Newell handed his brother the gun. Starks also said that Newell and Hill stole his cellphone, leading to the especially aggravated robbery charge.
Incident Two: On Sept. 19, 2010, members of Starks’ family alleged that Newell and a rapper named OG Boo Dirty — real name Lance Taylor — drove by their house, fired shots and tried to set the house on fire. Newell and Taylor were charged with arson, attempted second-degree murder and six counts of assault.
It’s indisputably vicious stuff, isn’t it? Makes Newell look like one bad dude.
“But then you meet him,” said Turner. “And you realize, he couldn’t possibly have done these things.”
Turner called Verties Sails, Newell’s coach at Southwest, just to get his sense of the kid.
“I told her I didn’t believe it for a minute,” Sails said. “I could be wrong, of course, because I wasn’t there. But there was nothing about Marshun to make me think he was the kind of kid who could ever do that kind of thing. I was completely shocked.”
Turner and her investigator kept asking questions. An alternative narrative emerged. Yes, Starks got shot, after he showed up at the house late at night and a fight broke out. But Starks was the only person who said Newell had anything to do with it. Other witnesses said Newell was in the shower at the time.
“Starks had multiple priors — he was on probation from cases in three states — and could not admit to having a gun,” said Turner. “At first, he actually told police he was shot in a drive-by shooting. He was going to do anything to put that gun in someone’s hand other than his own.”
Starks is now serving time in Georgia for a subsequent robbery. He’s paralyzed, but he was well enough to drive the getaway car at a robbery of a cell phone store.
“Let’s just say that he was not the most credible witness,” said Turner. “There was a fight, and he was shot, but it wasn’t because of Marshun.”
As for the second crime, the alleged drive-by and arson, Turner became convinced that one was pure fantasy.
“The main witness was Salaam’s sister, who also has multiple priors,” she said. “They were mad that Marshun made bail on the first charge. Marshun had nothing to do with a drive-by, if it even happened, and I have my doubts.”
Important note: This is not the way Turner usually talks about her clients. Because she could wake up tomorrow and learn that one of them just knocked over a bank. But it goes back to that whole belief thing. Turner really believed her client was sitting in jail for crimes he did not commit.
Meanwhile, Newell really believed that Turner would get him off. It was craziness, at some level. Newell had every reason to distrust the entire world. His mother died when he was 8. His father has never been around. Then he was cuffed, jailed and charged with a list of crimes that would stagger anyone.
“To tell you the truth, it made me uncomfortable, the level of trust he put in me,” Turner said. “I knew I would do my best, of course, but I didn’t know if that would be enough.”
At one point, Newell’s family thought about hiring a defense lawyer. Lester Hudson — the occasional NBA player — was going to pay the tab. Newell and Hudson are cousins, and grew up in the same house. Hudson could afford to hire one of the city’s big legal guns.
“I said I didn’t want that,” said Newell. “I told Ms. Turner, ‘You’re the lawyer I want.’ ”
All of which added to the pressure Turner was feeling. It didn’t help when the prosecution offered a plea agreement.
“On the especially aggravated robbery, they offered him two years,” Turner said. “It would actually have amounted to about seven months. At that point, he had already served 10 months so he would have been able to go free.
“But he was adamant from the beginning that he wasn’t pleading guilty to anything and I couldn’t blame him. At the same time, I knew there was always a possibility he would be convicted anyway.”
Newell tried to stay in shape to resume his basketball career. That’s how confident — or naive — he remained. He ran in place in his tiny cell for more than half an hour a day. He did thousands of sit-ups and thousands of push- ups. Oh, and he read. “To improve my vocabulary,” he said.
He read “Soul on Ice,” by Eldridge Cleaver. Turner brought him a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“I know why you brought me that one,” Newell told her, when he was done. “Yeah? Why?” said Turner. “Because you think you’re Atticus Finch,” Newell said.
THE SWEETEST SOUND
At one point during the trial, Turner started to feel physically sick. It was after Sails said he could never imagine Newell doing the crimes. The jury seemed to believe the old coach. But the prosecution used the opportunity — Sails testified as a character witness, opening the door for contrary evidence of Newell’s character — to haul in damaging stuff from Newell’s old Myspace page.
“It was mostly song lyrics,” said Turner. “But it painted a picture that wasn’t necessarily good. What if the jury doesn’t understand social media? If Marshun was convicted, I knew I’d blame myself.”
The trial began on a Monday and went to the jury on a Friday. Saturday, the verdict was returned.
“We find the defendant, Marshun Newell, not guilty,” said Newell, recently, remembering the words. “That’s the sweetest sound I’d ever heard.”
Newell’s brother, Delmonta Hill, was found guilty of a lesser charge, reckless aggravated assault. The charges stemming from the second incident — the alleged drive-by and arson — were subsequently dismissed.
It was that charge, the second charge, that landed Newell back in jail with his bail set at a level he couldn’t begin to pay. In other words, Newell lost a year of freedom for a charge that wasn’t sufficiently credible to make it to trial.
He lost something else, too. Newell’s grandmother died when he was in jail. It was his grandmother who raised him after his mother died. Newell couldn’t even say goodbye.
“That’s the part that makes me saddest,” he said. “The day she died, I made an announcement to everyone around that nobody should even try to talk to me. Then, I’m not going to lie, I cried all day.”
The day after his release, Newell visited his grandmother’s grave. He went from there to a basketball court.
“I wanted to make up for the time I lost,” Newell said. “I have a burning desire to get this right.”
Newell was named captain of the Southwest basketball team his first year out of jail. He was named captain again this year.
“I have a lot of leadership,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I guess it’s what I’ve been through.”
But Newell is not bitter. That’s the remarkable thing. Former Tennessee player Kevin Whitted took over as interim coach at Southwest when Benjamin Rhodes was fired just before the season began. So while Whitted knew about Newell’s story before the season tipped off, he had no idea what to expect.
“This is a guy who got knocked down by life like most people never get knocked down by life,” Whitted said. “But he’s never angry. He’s happy to have the opportunity now to write the ending of this story. It’s a great story. But he understands that the ending is in his hands.”
From a basketball perspective, this week could be significant. Southwest plays in the regionals in Lynchburg, Tenn. Win three games, and the team will advance to nationals in Hutchison, Kan, which is junior college basketball’s biggest stage.
Newell wants that stage. The better to tell his tale. He is a 6-3 combo guard who averages 18 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals. But he’s also a kid whose name generates stories about arson and attempted murder whenever you plug it into an Internet search.
“It hurts him,” said Whitted. “Of course it does. But he’s getting offers. He’s the kind of player, if he goes to a major college, people are going to look back someday and ask, `Where did he come from?’ ”
As for Newell and Turner, they keep in touch. He still calls her Ms. Turner. She watches over him like a fretful big sister and tries to get to his home games.
“I brought one of my friends from the office with me to one game,” she said. “She couldn’t hold it together. She was crying the whole time.”
Because you just don’t see stories like this every day. Or, if you do, you figure they can’t possibly be true.
Speaking of which: Does Turner ever wonder if her belief was misplaced? Ever think she might have been taken in?
“I’ll be honest, it’s occurred to me, just because I’m wary,” she said. “But, no, I don’t think that. I know him too well. Besides, he’s been out for more than a year and a half and he hasn’t gotten so much as a speeding ticket.” She laughed. “I told him he’s never allowed to get one of those,” she said.
It is sweet, watching them together. She gave him his life back; he gave her a reason to keep the faith.
“You don’t have to have a case like this every day, or every week, or even every year,” Turner said. “But every once in a while, it’s good.”