Sec­ond-half come­back


The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page - GE­OFF CALKINS COLUM­NIST

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 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.


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.”


Marshun Newell (left) was fac­ing mul­ti­ple felony charges when pub­lic de­fender Kami­lah Turner took his case. Turner de­fended her client zeal­ously and Newell was ac­quit­ted on all charges. Now he is a star player on the South­west Ten­nessee Com­mu­nity Col­lege bas­ket­ball team.


Pub­lic de­fender Kami­lah Turner (left) and Marshun Newell rem­i­nisce about their first meet­ing, when Newell was fac­ing mul­ti­ple felony charges. “He said he couldn’t af­ford a lawyer and my num­ber is the one that came up,” Turner said. "-When I started talk­ing to him, I started to think, 'You know what? He might not have done any of this."

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