By Stacey Patton,
Special to the NNPA
In 1985 Alan Newton, a Bronx man, was convicted for rape, robbery, and assault and was imprisoned for 22 years of a 40-year sentence before being cleared by DNA evidence and finally released in 2006. Four years later, thanks to litigation support from the Innocence Project, a Manhattan Federal District Court jury ruled that the city had violated his civil rights and found two police officers liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress by denying his right to gain access to DNA evidence.
For his trouble, Newton was awarded $18.5 million in damages, the largest compensation sum of its kind ever awarded–$96 for every hour of the 22 years he spent in prison. Newton’s lawyers argued that the city had shown a reckless disregard for Newton’s rights because the system for safeguarding DNA evidence and a defendant’s access to it was slipshod.
But last week, federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin took away Newton’s compensation, ruling that Newton had not proved that any city employees “withheld evidence in deliberate contravention or disregard of his right to due process.” Showing of negligence was not enough, she wrote in her opinion. “Newton’s due process claim cannot be sustained absent proof that a city official acted with the requisite constitutional culpability in withholding evidence.”
Scheindlin noted that the courts “repeatedly granted Newton the right to test the DNA evidence,” but it took years for the police to find the rape kit.
According to her 31-page decision, the city did not intentionally violate his civil rights. “It is not enough for Newton to have shown that the city’s post-trial evidence management system is disorganized. As disturbing as such negligence may be, in the end that is what it is: mere negligence.”
“I’m totally shocked,” Newton told the News after the decision came down. “The city’s saying I’m not entitled to anything, and no one has to answer for what happened to me anymore. … This is the last thing I expected.”
Newton’s lawyer says he plans to appeal the decision. Meanwhile, a case against the state is still pending.
Stacey Patton is a writer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.