The Innocence Project's Poster Child with a Past

They hailed Alan Newton's exoneration—without mentioning his other case of attempted rape

The Innocence Project's Poster Child with a Past

In 2006, a judge ordered the release of Alan Newton after 22 years in prison when a DNA test on a rape kit exonerated him. The rape kit had been misplaced by the New York City Police Department for a decade. The dramatic tale received high-profile press coverage. The Innocence Project—which specializes in using DNA tests to free the wrongly convicted—and Newton's attorney, John Schutty, got well-deserved plaudits for their work on Newton's behalf.

Newton had protested for years that he was innocent, filing motion after motion, seeking NYPD records, asking for help from anyone who would listen. Lots of inmates claim to be innocent, of course, but the DNA test, not available at the time of his 1985 conviction, proved it in his case.

Last fall, a federal court jury found his story so sympathetic that it awarded him $18.5 million for his ordeal. In that civil trial, police officials admitted to problems with the NYPD's evidence-storage system, including the existence of hundreds of unaccounted pieces of evidence. How many other people, critics ask, have been wrongfully convicted and can't prove their innocence because property has been mishandled? Alan Newton certainly wasn't the first or only person in that position.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux
Alan Newton thanks workers from the Innocence Project, which helped overturn his rape conviction.
Craig Warga/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Alan Newton thanks workers from the Innocence Project, which helped overturn his rape conviction.

In the years since his release, Newton, who was a bank teller and business trainee before his arrest, has obtained a college degree, gotten a job counseling students for the CUNY system, and applied to law school. Now 49, he appears to be living a peaceful life after so many years locked behind steel doors.

Though a judge recently overturned the huge financial award (his lawyers are appealing), his well-publicized story remains an extraordinary tale of a wrongful conviction finally overturned after more than two decades.

But there is another part of the story that has, until now, remained entirely absent from the media coverage. Court records show that Newton was convicted of not one, but two sexual assaults in the spring of 1985.

One case involved the 1984 rape and slashing of a 25-year-old woman—identified in court records as "V.J."—in an abandoned building in the Bronx. It was in that case that the 2005 DNA test exonerated him.

Newton was also convicted in 1985 for the attempted rape of a nine-year-old girl, identified in court papers as Erica G. After a short trial, he was found guilty in that case on May 6, 1985. The very next day, May 7, he went on trial for the rape of 25-year-old V.J. A jury convicted him on May 20, 1985.

He was sentenced in both cases on May 31, 1985. He got up to 11 years in prison for the attack on Erica G., and up to 40 years for the attack on V.J., those totals to be served consecutively.

While his conviction for raping V.J. was eventually overturned, the conviction in the attempted-child-rape remains, despite his vigorous attempts over the years to overturn it, too. In fact, that conviction was forcefully upheld just this past December 23 by Bronx Supreme Court Judge Richard Lee Price. It's not another matter of a missing or misplaced rape kit being tested to prove his innocence, according to the judge's ruling. Newton has long sought to have the child's sweater examined, contending that it may have evidence that would clear him, but Price called that only "speculative."

Newton may very well have been wrongly convicted in the attempted rape of Erica G., as he and his lawyers argue. But the judge who heard his most recent appeal didn't agree, and he said so in the strongest terms.

Price's decision got no coverage at all, and there has still been no mention of the attempted-rape conviction in media outlets (which we extensively searched) or in the Innocence Project's publicity campaign or background material on Alan Newton. The selling of Alan Newton, by the Innocence Project and in his speaking appearances and by media outlets, as an innocent man, has never mentioned the Erica G. conviction—not even to argue publicly that it, too, was wrongful and that he is still fighting a righteous battle for exoneration.

"The problem is it shifts the focus away from what is important, which is how many people have had their DNA evidence lost who may have been exonerated," says Newton's lawyer, Schutty. "It also takes away from the character of Alan Newton. He is a very good citizen. He got his degree. He's a career counselor. He's going to law school. He's not had a stitch of trouble. This blip on the radar screen—it doesn't fit."

The Innocence Project's portrayal of Alan Newton, who hands out awards on behalf of the group and makes speaking appearances about his wrongful conviction, is no different from its other publicity campaigns about the people it has helped free—except for not mentioning the other case in which he still stands convicted. The City of New York's attorneys certainly didn't want to hide the Erica G. case, but in Newton's civil lawsuit against the city, the judge rejected their attempt to bring it in. "In the civil case," Schutty says, "the jury was told there was another felony conviction, but not the nature of the crime or the details."

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19 comments
Damian Panno
Damian Panno

I get it. but i don't go for it. Alan Newton one must think did molest a nine year old girl who apparently somehow escaped being forceably raped. Newton spent the entire eleven year sentence in prison, not an easy thing to do. but to be sure, screw him for that. maybe he should have gotten more time for that, but he got what he did and spent it day for day in prison. It is the false conviction which is the subject of his legal victory (if there is any victory). For that he has reason to celebrate. Is he a good man? evidently publicity was steered that way in order to jack up any damage award from a jury in the civil case.But if he was a good man that does not make the crime of the government in committing such an outrageous blunder that an innocent man (on that charge) was convicted of a heinous crime and spent eleven years in prison over it-any worse. good, bad, those judgments are inevitable but irrelevant. Innocent or guilt is the issue. Did the system work in this case. Hell no. it seldom does. the Innocence Project deserves all the kudos for their tireless efforts to free innocent men and woman from prison. If it was you, you'd love em, and wouldn't give a care about their exaggerated pump up of Newton.

harlemboy
harlemboy

Shame on the Village Voice. Alan Newton is a good man who has endured appalling injustice in his life. This article only adds to it.

JCowboy
JCowboy

Read the article! If anything, it reiterates the claims that he has made. What you see as shameful I see as an attempt at being even-handed, making the public aware that one should always do their own research as there is very seldom the whole story from a single source.

Amy Carter
Amy Carter

The headline is VERY misleading; going up against the judicial system in this country is atrocious. Innocent men & women will linger for years (and maybe die) behind bars because of inept managerial procedures & policies. As for Judge Scheindlin's decision to overturn a jury verdict's decision (4 weeks of wasted time) - because Mr. Newton failed to prove the city's negligence in losing evidence - WHOSE FAULT IS THAT?? 'The city made reasonable efforts to find evidence" - UNBELIEVABLE!!! This is an on-going battle for Mr. Newton & I'm praying that this evil wrong-doing will come to a close soon!!!!!!!

Chris
Chris

To condemn Alan Newton for a crime (the Erica G. case), for which he served his time and for which he actively sought exoneration, and then a few pages later, point to the serious missteps in the City's handling of the case (thus lending credence to his claim of innocence) is irresponsible. It speaks ill of The Village Voice to essentially manufacture a scandal, given its long and storied history of exposing actual scandals.

The real scandal here is that the NYPD routinely mishandles evidence, and despite this having been acknowledged publicly as part of many news articles and civil cases, no real reform has occurred.

The real scandal is that there are other cases similar to Mr. Newton's in this city and across the country, where the lack of evidence, due to police mishandling, has condemned innocent people to incarceration.

To delve into the heart of this matter would require more than a salacious headline and multiple paragraphs of insinuation - it would require some serious investigative reporting, which this article, sadly, does not contain.

ibivi
ibivi

The evidence room is one of the least preferred jobs with most police departments. It also doesn't get much respect from the street cops or dectectives. The guy behind the desk wasn't good enough to be a regular cop or got the job through nepotism. The job is mostly clerical, usually located in a basement or some other unpleasant environment. It is under staffed and not properly equiped for the type of record maintenance required. Plus police are totally resistant to retrieving records once the "perp" has been convicted. What's done is done and they move on. If a case does come back they drag their heels and obstruct because it might make them look incompetent.

Dick L.T.
Dick L.T.

When I first saw this article, based on the headline teaser I thought, "Ah, Innocence Project screwed up." Then, after delving into the content, I realized, "The NYPD screwed up." Which, sad to say, is all too common. Why don't the police and legal system in this city upgrade to bar codes and computer database record keeping? Chain of evidence improvements must take place ASAP.And as for eyewitness testimony, all one needs to do is read the work of Elizabeth Loftus to see the unreliability of eyewitnesses. The man may indeed be guilty, but he was convicted on such flimsy evidence and inept legal defense. This case should get national attention. The man was obviously railroaded. You hear that, Brian Williams?

NickQueens
NickQueens

Was this article written by two different people?

The headline takes a shot at Newton and the Innocence Project, but then presents a very sympathetic story about a man who was likely wrongly convicted twice! The headline and the lead simply don't match Alan Newton's sympathetic story.

And this story just doesn't fit within the Village Voice that I know - the newspaper that defends the oppressed and takes on the City and the NYPD when other papers controlled by big money avoid ruffling feathers . . .

I urge you to write the next chapter of this story -- how many other Alan Newtons are there out there -- men who claim that they are innocent but can't get their DNA from the NYPD to prove it. Let's find out once and for all, through DNA testing, if our tax money is keeping innocent men incarcerated and the guilty parties on the street . . . .

And, finally, what does Newton's jury think about the judge reversing their $18 million verdict after a four week trial? That's crazy! If I spent four weeks on a jury, I would surely be upset if the judge substituted her opinion for mine and my fellow jurrors . . .

C'mon Village Voice get back to taking on the big guys and helping those who have been wronged by the government.

Stuart Namm
Stuart Namm

This is another example, albeit in New York City, which I have decried for more than 25 years as our "Criminal Injustice" system! Think Martin Tankleff, Peter Corso, James Diaz-all in Suffolk County in the 1980's.Judge Stuart Namm (Ret)www.legaleagleproductions.com

Sam
Sam

the voice certainly knows a majority of its "new" readership... sensational (in the worst sense) story, damning headline, trashing a wrongfully convicted man, and then burying the facts of the case which seem to overwhelming show that he was indeed innocent deep in the story where few would bother to continue reading.... shameful, amateur, but frankly not surprising, the voice is a shell of its former self and this is unfortunate hack writing at its worstshame on the author but larger shame on the voice for showing no editorial integrity at all.

TiggerCatWriter
TiggerCatWriter

Guilty until proven innocent. And then try to prove him guilty.

Disappointed
Disappointed

Oh, I'm sorry Village Voice, I didn't realize that once a person has been convicted of one crime, it is OK to convict him or her of other crimes, even if they didn't commit them! I must have forgotten that the criminal justice system has a "1 strike and you are out" rule: once you have been convicted once, the constitutional protections of due process no longer apply to you.

You should be ashamed for your misleading headline. It's one thing to point out that Mr. Newton has a conviction for attempted rape, for which he served his time, but does that really change anything? Does that mean its OK for him to go to jail for another crime he didn't commit? Does that mean its OK for the NYPD to have sloppy controls over how they store and track DNA evidence for all suspects, some of whom may not have any prior convictions? Steven Avery, another exoneree from Wisconsin, who spent almost 20 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit while the real rapist continued to rape women, was also convicted of a crime before he was convicted of the one he didn't commit, and after he was released he was convicted of another horrible crime for which he is back in prison.

The Innocence Project works to improve the criminal justice system as a whole, to make the entire process more transparent, accurate, and fair, for EVERYONE. Mr. Newton's prior conviction shouldn't stop anyone from supporting that.

Mick
Mick

have you ever heard the phrase " where their is smoke....?usually their is a fire ..?don't be so quick to assume innocence ..most folks do not ever get accused , much less convicted of attempting to rape a 9 year old it speaks to his predilections..OK?

Disappointed
Disappointed

I can't believe I'm taking the time to respond to you, when you clearly did not understand my comment, and obviously know nothing about our legal system or the science behind eyewitness identifications. I actually didn't assume Mr. Newton was innocent of the attempted rape he was convicted of; I wrote that even if he was guilty, that shouldn't have any bearing on whether he should be convicted of other crimes he did not commit. And, as pointed out by others, the proof against him in that case was weak, relying almost entirely on a stranger identification by a child, which science shows is not as reliable as people might think. But as I said before, that's irrelevant! Our nation is governed by the rule of law, not the rule of men, and you have to prove someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with reliable evidence - every single time.

MT
MT

Mick,Did you even read the article? The nine-year-old victim described an assailant who had a noticeable scar on his face, which Newton doesn't have. Newton had three alibi witnesses who were never called to testify at trial because of an incompetent attorney. The only evidence against him was identification by a terrified nine-year-old who did not have much opportunity to observe her assailant. Being wrongfully convicted doesn't speak to Newton's "predilections" at all. It speaks to our criminal justice system's.

Cassidy
Cassidy

The headline and initial presentation make it seem as if this poor man has something to hide. But indeed, as "LG" noted, the real story is that in 2011 the NYPD's property division is still relying on ledger books and a lot of paperwork!

What's really chilling is how a judge could find that such backwardness does not constitute "negligence"...and that there are many, many innocents rotting away in our prison system right now!

Absolutely scary.

Scary, scary, scary -- and I ain't even black!

Bicho
Bicho

this article answers its own question. the IP only handles DNA cases and the first conviction was an attempted rape thus no DNA is likely to surface. They tried to dig up the sweater but it was "disposed of." The headline and pic are misleading and likely to incite a lot of reactionary bull.

LG
LG

There's a story here, but not the one implied by the headline or the lead. Only when the author arrives at the last few paragraphs do the real disturbing facts of Newton's story come to light. The handling of evidence in NY and elsewhere is woefully out-of-date, perhaps even intentionally so. Carbon paper record-keeping? Seriously? CSI, this is not. Prosecutors and investigators would just rather not revisit cases, even when new compelling evidence emerges, such as Newton's exoneration in a related crime. There's just no incentive for DAs and police to properly maintain evidence--few want the risk of embarrassment from overturned convictions--unless new legislation is passed to force the issue.

 
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