innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Monday, July 10, 2006

Lost DNA Evidence a Real Problem in New York City Cases

New York Fails at Finding Evidence to Help the Wrongfully Convicted


Published: July 6, 2006

Alan Newton, a former bank teller from the Bronx, is due to leave prison today after serving 22 years for a rape he did not commit — a victim first of mistaken identification, then of a housekeeping problem of epic scope.

For more than a decade, Mr. Newton, 44, pleaded in state and federal courts for DNA testing that was not available when he was tried, but Police Department officials said they could not find the physical evidence from the case. That evidence, a rape kit taken from a woman who was kidnapped and assaulted, was located only after a special request was made last year by a senior Bronx prosecutor to a police inspector.

The rape kit, it turned out, was in its original storage bin from 1984, Barrel No. 22, in the same police warehouse that the authorities said they had searched at least three times since Mr. Newton first asked in 1994.

The long-delayed DNA tests proved the innocence of Mr. Newton, who had refused to participate in a sex-offender treatment program in prison, ruining his chance for an earlier parole. He plans to come to court today dressed in one of the suits he wore to work half his lifetime ago.

At least 17 other people who have been convicted of serious crimes in New York City, and who maintain that they are innocent, have been unable to obtain DNA testing because the authorities say they cannot find the evidence, said Vanessa Potkin, a staff lawyer with the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan, a legal clinic that helps convicts get DNA tests.

By the Innocence Project's tally, the city has one of the worst records in the country for finding old evidence when it is sought by people seeking to clear their names:
Of the New York City cases that the project has been unable to resolve, 50 percent involved DNA evidence that had been lost or destroyed, compared with an average of 32 percent nationally.

"It has been much more difficult for us to locate forensic evidence in New York City than any other jurisdiction," Ms. Potkin said. "Mr. Newton could have been proven innocent in 1994."
A police official, Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, said the department was investigating why the rape kit had not been found earlier. "Beginning five years ago," he said, "the Property Clerk's Office improved its procedures regarding DNA evidence, which includes approximately 17,000 rape kits, by segregating DNA evidence and storing it separately from all other evidence."

With more people and more crime than any other American city, New York also stores more evidence — over 1 million pieces in a central warehouse in Queens, and more in satellite facilities in each borough — and until recently, its inventory system consisted of handwritten ledgers and index cards. Besides storerooms run by the Police Department, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner also keeps some biological evidence.

One man who, with a co-defendant, has unsuccessfully chased evidence through the criminal justice system, said he appreciated that vast amounts of material must be stored but said even tiny fractions of it could have the power to right lives.

"I understand there's megatons of evidence all over the place," said the man, Reginald Connor, 38, who was paroled two years ago. "But these are people's lives that are being turned upside down because of stuff like this. Where is the stuff that can overturn our case and show we are innocent?"

For the whole story, click here.


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