A Bronx man who was imprisoned for more than two decades on a rape conviction before being cleared by DNA evidence was awarded $18.5 million by a jury on Tuesday.
The judgment, which came about four years after the man, Alan Newton, was released from prison, is one of the largest ever awarded to a wrongfully incarcerated person in New York City. Mr. Newton was convicted of rape, robbery and assault in 1985 — based largely on eyewitness testimony — and spent years fighting to have DNA evidence from the case located and tested after more advanced testing procedures became available.
A rape kit from the case was found in a Police Department warehouse in 2005 — about a decade after Mr. Newton and his lawyers had requested it — and subsequent testing showed that DNA collected from the victim did not match.
Mr. Newton, now 49, was released from prison in July 2006. On Tuesday, a jury ruled that the city had violated his constitutional rights, and found two police officers liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress for failing to produce Mr. Newton’s evidence when requested.
“I’m just real numb right now,” Mr. Newton said in an interview on Tuesday. “It hasn’t really sunk in. It’s so emotional. It’s something I’ve been fighting for the last four years, since I came home. I’m just glad things worked out at the end of the day.”
A spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department said the city was “disappointed” with the verdict, which was rendered in Federal District Court in Manhattan, and planned to appeal it.
Mr. Newton’s lawyer, John F. Schutty III, argued that the Police Department’s system for storing and keeping track of post-conviction evidence was so shoddy that the city showed a reckless disregard for his constitutional rights. Mr. Schutty pointed out that for years the city had been registering and tracking the movement of evidence strictly by paper and pen.
“Only this year are they attempting to introduce a bar-code system,” he said.
Mr. Newton’s claim was supported by the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that seeks to free convicts through DNA evidence. It said that of about 50 people from New York City it had represented in the last five years, half had received the DNA evidence in their cases from the city. In the other cases, the city was unable to produce the evidence or explain what had happened to it.
“The City of New York,” Mr. Schutty said, “has been engaged in a pattern of failing to pay proper attention to their duties to preserve post-conviction criminal evidence and its associated paperwork.”
Since being released from prison, Mr. Newton has tried to catch up on lost time. He immediately enrolled as a full-time student at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and completed his studies over the next two years.
He now works as a research associate at the Black Male Initiative of the City University of New York, helping to recruit, retain and assist students to ensure they graduate from college, he said. And he recently took the law school admissions test and plans to apply to law schools this year. Eventually, he said, he would like to do public interest work, helping to prevent people in poor neighborhoods from suffering the fate that he did.
“I want to work with people that really need that legal assistance that’s just not there for them,” he said. “There are so many issues where people need competent counsel, and it’s just not out there. I think I’ll jump into it with both arms.”
Asked if he planned to celebrate his verdict, Mr. Newton said he was in no rush.
“There’ll be time for celebration, but there are some other things to take care of,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of patience in my life. I’ve learned not to rush anything. Good things take time. This decision took time, but it was worth every moment.”