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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