Theresa Newman ’88, clinical professor and Wrongful Convictions Clinic co‑director, retires
Theresa Newman was drawn to study law by her interest in its stories.
“As a rule follower I was always interested in rule breakers and what it means to transgress,” says Newman, the Charles S. Rhyne Clinical Professor of Law, who retired in June after 31 years on the Duke Law faculty. “I didn’t think much about the practice of law, but thought it would be fascinating to study.”
For almost two decades, Newman focused her professional energy on stories of innocence and injustice that have revealed errors, bias, and even transgressors within the justice system itself.
Along with faculty colleagues and student attorneys in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which she co-directed, and the Innocence Project, for which she served as faculty advisor, she painstakingly investigated dozens of plausible claims of innocence made by North Carolina inmates convicted of felonies and sought exoneration for almost 20 through post-conviction litigation in state and federal courts. In addition to presenting her clients’ stories in meticulously crafted court filings, oral arguments, and negotiations that reflect her expertise in legal writing, superb judgment, and relentless commitment to the pursuit of justice, she demonstrated a level of respect and compassion towards her clients that earned their trust and affection and left a lasting impression on her students.
Dontae Sharpe recalls telling Newman that he didn’t trust anybody when she first came to see him in 2010 at the Harnett Correctional Institution, where he was incarcerated after being convicted of a 1994 murder in Greenville, N.C., for which he steadfastly maintained his innocence. But as they talked “she kind of won me over,” he says, and the dedication and honesty she displayed as lead counsel supervising students in a thorough reinvestigation of his case “broke down my walls.” Nine years later, Sharpe gained his freedom when a judge in Greenville found that newly discovered evidence presented by the clinic on his behalf destroyed the state’s entire theory of the case against him. (Sharpe received a pardon of innocence from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Nov. 12, after this issue of Duke Law Magazine had been printed.)
“Theresa was straight up with me every time she came to see me, and she really showed me that her heart was in it,” says Sharpe, one of 10 clients to win exoneration since Newman founded the clinic in 2008 with co-director James Coleman, Jr., the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law. “I saw her passion and her dedication to undo wrongful convictions — not just in my case, but also in her other cases. She still was trying to help guys who already were released. And that showed me that she was in it for the long haul.”
Newman also has left a lasting impression on her students. While investigating Sharpe’s case in the clinic under Newman’s supervision, Ellie Marranzini ’13 acquired approaches to building connections with clients and witnesses she says are invaluable to her current practice as an assistant federal public defender in the District of Puerto Rico. Newman, Marranzini adds, is the best mentor she’s ever had: “My experience working with her was extremely formative in terms of helping me decide what I wanted to do with my legal career and what kind of lawyer I wanted to be. She’s dedicated, she’s hardworking, she’s poised, she’s eloquent, she’s articulate and respectful. She has a lot of qualities that I was able to observe and admire and try to emulate in my own practice.”
Newman’s remarkable career at Duke also included editing journals, directing the legal writing program, and serving as associate dean of academic affairs and associate director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility. She was a founding board member of the international Innocence Network, serving as its inaugural co-president and subsequently as president, and helping set standards and ethical guidelines for innocence clinics and organizations across the country. She has twice been honored by the Law School’s Law Alumni Association, receiving the Young Alumni Award in 2003 and sharing the A. Kenneth Pye Award for Excellence in Education with Coleman in 2018. And at the request of Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean and professor of law, she was the distinguished speaker at the Law School’s 2021 convocation ceremony. (Read more.)
“Theresa Newman is simply treasured by faculty, alumni, students, and clients alike, as a colleague, teacher, mentor and advocate,” says Abrams. “Her career offers a wonderful example of the different paths a legal education can open and the power lawyers have to improve the justice system.”
An unconventional student crafts a multifaceted career
Newman, the middle child of five who grew up in Suffolk County on Long Island, was the first of her family to attend college, starting at a local community college and then graduating with a degree in English and secondary education from the State University of New York at New Paltz. She taught high school English and multiple electives for three years in Rhinebeck, N.Y., before moving to east Tennessee, where her then-husband was working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Newman kept busy, studying broadcast journalism in a graduate program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, working in information sciences at the National Laboratory, and raising her two small children. After the family relocated to Durham in 1983, Newman found work in Research Triangle Park, first on a study of Vietnam veterans’ experiences with the defoliant Agent Orange and then at the educational testing company, Measurement Incorporated. The spouse of one of her colleagues there, who was studying law at Duke, piqued her interest in doing the same.
She admits to being nervous about starting her legal studies at Duke, finding herself the oldest student and only mother in the JD class — and worried that she would not be able to compete with Ivy League-educated classmates. Her concerns dissipated at an orientation picnic she attended with her two preschoolers, where Professor Horace “Robbie” Robertson — then senior associate dean — and his wife gave the family a hearty welcome. “They revealed to me the warmth of the place, the openness of Duke,” Newman says. “I realized that I actually belong here.”
From day one, though, Newman’s family responsibilities shaped her experience in law school. “I approached law school as a job,” she says, noting that she completed all class preparation, assignments, and, in her upper years, duties as a faculty research assistant and Duke Law Journal editor, during the hours that her son and daughter were at school and in child care. “I didn’t miss a class in three years,” she says. “I wasn’t able to go to parties and I missed the after-hours social life of the Law School — I was making dinner and bathing kids. But I loved law school. And I was at the right school.”
After graduating Order of the Coif, Newman clerked for Judge James Dickson Phillips, Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and then entered litigation practice at Womble in Raleigh, where she had worked during her 1L and 2L summers. But when juggling billable-hour demands, a long commute, and her children’s ever-expanding activities and social lives proved unsustainable, she applied, successfully, for a position as general editor of Law & Contemporary Problems and the Alaska Law Review. On her return to Duke Law, she soon found herself becoming friends and collaborators with faculty scholars like John Weistart and Robert Mosteller who had been her professors just a few years earlier.
Newman loved working with students and eventually became advisor to all the student-run journals. She went on to teach Legal Ethics and in 1994 became the inaugural director of legal writing, helping transition the discipline from one taught by small-section professors of the first-year core curriculum to a standardized course taught by specialists.
“Theresa was a fabulous director and mentor, particularly on teaching,” says retired Clinical Professor Diane Dimond, who joined Newman in building a legal analysis, research, and writing (LARW) program that is known for helping Duke Law students excel in their first-year summer jobs and beyond. “Her advice was invaluable. And she is a fabulous editor.”
Newman’s ability to present the procedural and legal history of cases in Motions for Appropriate Relief and other filings in powerful and persuasive ways has been critical to every Wrongful Convictions Clinic case, says Coleman. “Our filings have always had her significant imprint. Even in cases where Theresa has not been the lead counsel, she has handled a lot of the editing.”
“Theresa is very good at finding just the right words to convey a position in a very respectful and appropriately deferential manner,” adds Clinical Professor Jamie Lau ’09, who joined the clinic in 2012 as supervising attorney. “Sometimes when I am unable to find the right words for a point that needs to be conveyed, I reach out to her and ask to work on ‘Newmanizing’ it.”
In 1999 Newman became co-associate dean for academic affairs under then-Dean Pamela Gann ’73, filling the post half-time while still teaching LARW. She moved into the position full-time when A. Kenneth Pye Professor Emerita of Law Katharine Bartlett became dean in 2000 and she held it until 2008, handling such matters as curriculum development, classroom assignments and teaching schedules, and managing the extended faculty with her signature calm and good humor.
“When I was dean, there is no one I depended upon more than Theresa,” says Bartlett. “Her workload capacity was enormous, and the grace and good judgment she brought to every matter she handled was unparalleled.”
Captured by stories of innocence and injustice
Newman and Coleman jumped into wrongful convictions work as a sideline in the early 2000s, when two students sought faculty sponsorship to launch a chapter of the Innocence Project. Again, it was the stories that drew her in, Newman says.
“It returned to the very thing that drew me to law school, which is the stories of the law. Misbehavior interests me and storytelling interests me. People interest me. And there is the intersection of all those interests in these human tragedies, along with the great power lawyers have to help these individuals, to disentangle them from the awful power of the law.”
“Theresa was straight up with me every time she came to see me, and she really showed me that her heart was in it.”—Dontae Sharpe, exoneree
As faculty advisors, Newman and Coleman supervised Innocence Project members in initial reviews of inmates’ claims of factual innocence to assess their plausibility and helped launch the nonprofit North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence to serve as a clearinghouse for inmates’ claims to avoid duplicative efforts among chapters at law schools across the state. They also began co-teaching a seminar on the different factors that can lead to wrongful convictions, such as false confessions, faulty eyewitness testimony and forensics, and fabrications by “jailhouse snitches,” in which they engaged their students in work on cases where claims of innocence were highly plausible (including some that later became part of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic docket).
Newman was also instrumental in building the Innocence Network, an affiliation of the ever-growing number of organizations providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to overturn convictions and, later, assistance to exonerees.
“Theresa has extraordinary organizational capabilities and she’s a hugely generous person with her time and her intellect, which I think was necessary to allow this group of wonderful — and forceful — advocates and litigators to work together so well,” says Maddy deLone, a fellow Innocence Network board member and longtime executive director of the Innocence Project. Newman, deLone adds, also helped other law schools understand the educational value and worth of innocence programs and clinics to their educational missions and helped establish legal and ethical best practices and programs and procedures for assessing compliance.
A superb teacher, supervisor, and mentor
Clinical teaching and innocence practice became Newman’s full-time focus when her term as associate dean ended in 2008, and she and Coleman launched the clinic with seed funding from Duke University. A key pedagogical goal for Newman was training clinic students “to be productive consumers of criminal justice cases and articles, to be good jurors, and to be skeptical assessors of facts.”
As successive teams of clinic students work on cases that often unfold over many years, they undertake fresh — and granular — assessments of testimony offered by eyewitnesses, investigators, and experts at trial, and track down overlooked witnesses and evidence, often developing and testing new theories supporting a client’s innocence.
Michael Horowitz ’09 — a member of the “A-Team,” as LaMonte Armstrong called the clinic students and alumni who worked over multiple semesters to exonerate him of a 1988 murder — says Newman had a knack for working with students. Now managing counsel for RAI Services Company in Winston-Salem, Horowitz oversees a team of lawyers that includes novices, and says the way Newman helped students build skills for serving clients in a manner imbued with autonomy and trust was itself instructive. “She had the attitude that you were bringing new eyes to the case,” he says. “She embraced the possibility that you might see things that even she, as an expert, might not. She got the best out of you in a way that was never distant yet never micromanagerial.”
Armstrong was exonerated in 2012 after clinic students persuaded a prosecutor and detective to undertake a thorough review of the case and police uncovered new evidence during a retest of physical evidence from the crime scene. He subsequently received a pardon of innocence and remained a steadfast clinic supporter until his death in 2019, regularly sharing his story with first-year students during their LEAD Week orientation.
“When LaMonte Armstrong was freed, the judge held up the two big notebooks with student work in it and said to him, ‘You should be so proud of the students who worked on your case,’” Newman recalls.
“We could not do this work without students,” she says. “Many of our cases follow the work of sole practitioners or people who work in small firms, who for a fee tried to handle these cases and in many that’s impossible.”
Emphasizing clients’ humanity, integrity
Coleman, who joined the faculty in 1996, says his already strong professional bond with Newman flourished when they became clinic co-directors.
“Theresa and I have been on the same page on a lot of what we’ve done, almost to the point that we can complete each other’s sentences,” he says. “We had the same sense of outrage at the injustices that we saw, the same commitment to working with students and bringing them along, the same values we brought to teaching them in terms of professionalism and ethics. It’s been very easy for us to convey a single message, whether we were together or talking to students separately. It’s been an extraordinary partnership.”
The administrative know-how Newman honed as associate dean has made an invaluable contribution to the clinic’s success, as has her unfailing courtesy and warmth, he adds: “Theresa is especially good at knowing what the right touch is when dealing with judges and prosecutors. And she’s such a nice person — even to prosecutors who are being total jerks. I think that’s effective.”
It has been building connections with wary incarcerated clients and their families, keeping them optimistic while also managing their disappointment and expectations when they suffer almost inevitable legal and procedural setbacks, where Newman is perhaps most exceptional, say colleagues and former students. She bonds with clients in personal ways, such as with Sharpe over their shared love of books, for example, and takes pains to remember birthdays and holidays with cards in their native languages.
“One thing Professor Newman has really impressed on me is that our clients are people who have been told by society, told by prison guards, told by these institutions that they’re guilty and worthless and have probably reached out to dozens of innocence organizations trying to get some help and support,” says Steven Dallas ’21, who spent two semesters in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and three years with the Innocence Project, including one as executive director. “To a large extent, they just want to feel human and to be heard.”
Howard Dudley credits Newman with restoring his integrity. He was exonerated in 2016, having spent 23 years in prison after being falsely accused and wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting his daughter when she was 9, a claim that she had recanted shortly after his conviction and he always denied. In an evidentiary hearing, the clinic demonstrated to the court that his conviction stemmed from the prosecution’s failure to share with the defense evidence calling the allegations into question, coupled with his trial counsel’s inexperience. During his final courtroom appearance, Newman’s touch was powerful, Dudley says. “I wished my mother could have been there to hold my hand, but Ms. Theresa held my arm. She gave me the comfort that I needed. I always tell her, ‘You saved my life.’ I had no trust in the system, but she restored every bit of it.”
A Duke Law “lifer” with a genius for connection
Newman is fond of sharing the Wrongful Convictions Clinic motto that sums up the way faculty and students approach their clients and cases before and after exoneration: “We never, never, never give up.” She and her colleagues support former clients as they try to find their footing after decades of wrongful incarceration and help them with pardon petitions and appearances before the parole commission. (Of the clinic’s 10 exonerees, so far only four have received the gubernatorial pardons that are required for state compensation.)
Newman says she is grateful for having had the chance to make a difference in her clients’ lives, but always wishes she could have done more. “Had Jim and I not said yes to serving as faculty advisors to the Innocence Project, would LaMonte Armstrong have died in prison? Would Dontae Sharpe have spent his life in prison? If Duke hadn’t funded us, would all of these men still be in prison? And with more money we could be more successful. We could have more lawyers — there’s so much need.”
“I’m not sure I know anyone at Duke Law School who has accomplished as much meaningful work with as little need for recognition or praise, or anyone I would rather hold out as an example to our students.”— Professor Emerita Katharine Bartlett
But she never let herself or her students get snowed under by the solemnity of their tasks. She says she “tilts towards optimism” and loves connecting with people, and gets accolades for doing just that.
“Professor Newman taught me that lawyers, even lawyers fighting against massive injustices, can still be humans,” says Katie Claire Hoffman ’13, who reinvestigated Sharpe’s case and is now a public defender in Charlotte. “She is strong, but she feels the human toll of her work. She allowed herself and the students working with her to grieve or feel angry. She modelled for us how to do this type of work for the long run.”
Bartlett says Newman’s “commitment to proving the innocence of the wrongfully convicted repeatedly underscores both the weaknesses and strengths of our legal system. I’m not sure I know anyone at Duke Law School who has accomplished as much meaningful work with as little need for recognition or praise, or anyone I would rather hold out as an example to our students.”
And even in retirement, Newman expects to continue to have opportunities to serve her alma mater and her clients. In her remarks to the Duke Law Class of 2021 at their convocation ceremony in May, Newman quoted Coleman’s declaration to their clinic students that “we are all ‘lifers’” who will be forever called upon to assist with clinic work. “I knew that getting into it, so I stand ready for the call,” she said.