innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Finally, a Life Resumed in New York City

This article appeared in the New York Times on October 29, 2006:

Finally, a Life Resumed

By JEFF VANDAM

AFTER 22 years in Dannemora, Sing Sing, Attica, Great Meadow, Elmira and the Downstate Correctional Facility at Fishkill, Alan Newton came home to the Bronx one unremarkable day last July, his age doubled, his life renewed. As had been proved incontrovertibly, he did not commit the crimes that made the prisons of New York State his home for more than two decades.

One June evening in 1984, Mr. Newton had gone to see “Ghostbusters” in a Downtown Brooklyn movie theater, and within a week he found himself accused of rape, robbery and assault. He had not even been in the Bronx at the time the crimes were committed, but no matter. He did the time.

Now, the years of prison, and endless efforts to have the city find the DNA evidence that would prove his innocence, were history. Mr. Newton returned to the city of his birth with a characteristic sense of purpose. He had successfully taken on the system that wrongly imprisoned him; now, he would take on a normal life, or a life approaching normal.

To encounter Mr. Newton’s muscular frame and his smiling, unlined face while knowing nothing of his background is to meet a congenial man who seems happy simply to be living in his hometown again. And he is no wizened Rip Van Winkle. Although Mr. Newton, 45, has spent nearly half his life behind bars, he is unexpectedly comfortable in 21st-century New York, ready not only to navigate its high-tech byways, but also to discuss everything from the viability of the Mets’ current outfield to the exploits of Agent Jack Bauer on the television series “24.”

In addition, he is dealing with such mundane matters as finding a place to live, having enough money to buy food and clothing, and making his way to and from classes at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he is earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration. In these and other respects, Mr. Newton’s is a life resumed, if not restored.

•One drizzly evening a few weeks after his release, Mr. Newton took a stroll along the narrow, boutique-lined streets of NoLIta, a neighborhood that at the time he entered the penal system was simply considered part of Little Italy. The storefronts filled with glittery drop earrings and pointy-toed suede heels represented a drastic change from the warehouses and food distribution centers of old. But asked if the place looked different, Mr. Newton simply shrugged.

Heading west toward SoHo, he came upon a former post office that had been gutted and transformed into a palace of translucent glass and ambient sound. It was the Apple Store, where snowy white computers flanked by matching speakers sat atop every table, alongside tiny iPods.

Admittedly, some of what’s new in New York has caught him unawares. He has been bemused, for example, by the offerings at Starbucks. Of any given Starbucks product, Mr. Newton said, "It tastes like a milkshake." And iced coffee? “It used to be, if somebody had cold coffee sitting there, they didn’t want it anymore.”

But mostly, he is taking the new New York in stride. At the Apple Store, Mr. Newton looked at the equipment with respectful interest, but he was neither shocked nor amazed. Less than two months out of prison, which he entered the year the first Macintosh personal computer hit the market, he was hardly fazed at all by the nation’s palace of personal technology. Almost indifferently, he checked his e-mail on one of the wireless computers — his sister Grace taught him how to do this — before heading out to the damp of Prince Street.

LATER, over dinner within the snug confines of Lombardi’s Pizzeria on Spring Street, it became clear through Mr. Newton’s remembrances and observations that little in the way of material comforts could surprise a man who had caromed like a racquetball through countless prisons over 22 years — “the New York tour,” as inmates call it. Only in the brief but ever-present mentions of “when I was inside,” as he puts it, does the sheer enormity of what weighs on him become apparent.

In the summer of 1984, Mr. Newton was a 23-year-old business representative trainee for the New York Telephone Company, living with his two brothers and five sisters in a public housing project in Morrisania in the Bronx. In his off-hours, he cut loose at hip-hop dance parties up and down the Bronx, especially in Echo Park on Valentine Avenue, at the schoolyard of Public School 63 and at clubs like the T Connection and the Sparkle.

“Wherever the parties were, I was there,” Mr. Newton recalled over a large half-eaten pizza. “Somebody jumped out a cab, they’d say: ‘Hey, there’s a party uptown at the T Connection! Let’s go!’ ”

But after he saw “Ghostbusters” on the evening of June 22, there would be no more dance parties. That night, a 25-year-old woman was grabbed as she was leaving a bodega in the Tremont section of the Bronx, and she was raped once in nearby Crotona Park and again in an abandoned building. Her eye was sliced by the assailant, who drove a Pontiac Grand Prix, and her money and cigarettes were taken.

Though the victim identified the man who attacked her as “Willie,” she picked Mr. Newton out of a photo lineup, as did a clerk at the bodega. Mr. Newton did not own a Grand Prix, but he lived less than a mile from the bodega, and he had a criminal record from a fight as a teenager. The following May, he was convicted. The sentence was 13 1/3 to 30 years.

Maintaining his innocence in prison long after most convicts do, Mr. Newton formally requested DNA testing multiple times, only to be told that the relevant evidence could not be found.

In 2004, his case was taken up by the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic based in Manhattan that has helped free prisoners based on DNA evidence. Last November, the evidence was found in a decrepit police warehouse on Pearson Place, a twig of a street in Long Island City, Queens, that sits between a rail yard and the Long Island Expressway.

The discovery inside the four-story brown building, home of the New York Police Department Property Unit, was not the result of luck. The evidence was in Bin No. 2002-1, which, as it turned out, was exactly where everything needed to exonerate Mr. Newton was always supposed to be.

Mr. Newton does not speak much about his years behind bars. “I got into a few fights,” he said, “but basically, you know, it was the years I did that were hard. I basically came out of there unscratched, compared to other guys.”

He sometimes wonders, however, about the chain of events that led to his release. Somehow he acquired a photograph of the inside of the building at Pearson Place. Every so often, he takes it out and looks at the image of barrels and barrels containing evidence, and the forklifts required to move them around.

HERE is the most startling news about Alan Newton: he is not angry. Hardly a trace of bitterness can be heard in his soft, unemotional voice when he discusses the events of his life, and this despite the fact that his troubles aren’t entirely behind him.

Nearly every day, Mr. Newton goes through endless trials that are part of his efforts to re-enter a society from which he was excluded for more than two decades. Simply acquiring a document stating his identity, for example, a piece of paper most people obtain with barely a moment’s thought, presented an almost insurmountable challenge.

Because he had no birth certificate within easy reach and the state would not take a prison ID as proof of his existence, Mr. Newton found himself out of luck when he requested the photo ID that the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles routinely issues to New Yorkers who don’t drive.

His luck changed only after The Daily News published an article about his unexpected release from prison; he cut out the article, took it with him to the D.M.V. office on 125th Street in Harlem and held it up to the window to show the clerk, who finally relented.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” Mr. Newton said of the month it took him to receive an otherwise routine document. “Not having ID, it’s like you’re not a person, especially now, here in New York.” Now, he added with relief, “I can travel without a newspaper article.”

Crown Heights is not known as a college town. The low-rise red-brick buildings of Medgar Evers College hardly stand out along the stretch of Bedford Avenue on which they sit, overwhelmed by the Ebbets Field Apartments next door, a collection of light brown towers that occupy the land once filled by the mourned ballpark.

The neighborhood is neither quiet nor lush with trees and brownstones. On the contrary, it is loud and lively. Trucks and auto body shops are a constant. The college’s neighbors on the other side of Bedford Avenue include a check-cashing place, the Balboa Caribbean Restaurant, the Principe de Paz Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, and the Coral Church of Righteousness and Light Inc.

Bright and early most mornings, this is the scene Mr. Newton enters.

After 22 years of being rigidly kept in his place in prison and being told repeatedly that his situation could not be helped, Mr. Newton now seeks quick and definitive solutions to even the most ordinary problems. This was apparent the afternoon this summer when he elbowed his way through throngs at the student bookstore in search of a textbook called “Discovering the Universe,” for his course in physical science.

Blending into the crowd in his dark pants and off-white, open-collar shirt, he walked up to a classmate who was standing in line and addressed her in a friendly but businesslike manner. His voice, typically soft and pleasant, grew louder and more direct. “They got that book?” he asked. She shook her head.

This was clearly not the first time he had confronted such a problem.

Immediately, Mr. Newton pulled out one of his two cellphones, each a gift from a brother, and dialed direct to the office of the college’s vice president of operations, which was helping him get settled.

“Yes, this is Alan Newton, again,” he said crisply. “Could you inform Mr. Davis that they don’t have that book, either?”

Thanks to courses he took in prison, Mr. Newton had earned an associate’s degree in business administration and accumulated 99 academic credits. Nevertheless, applying to Medgar Evers was hardly a snap.

“The first time Alan came into our downtown office, this lady was like, ‘Why are you applying for this so late?’ ” said Christopher Hundley, acting director of the college’s office of communications, describing his first meeting with Mr. Newton just weeks after his release.

“Then he said, ‘I’m that guy’ ” — the guy whose face and story had been splashed all over CNN and the newspapers. “We had no idea. It’s like, what do you even say?”

Mr. Newton will most likely need to spend only one year at Medgar Evers to earn all the credits he needs to acquire a bachelor’s degree. Beyond that, he is not certain what he will do. With his vast experience in wrangling with the criminal justice system, law school often comes to mind, as does starting some sort of business on the Internet.

“I got to plan,” Mr. Newton said. “I got to think. And I got to do for myself now, to make things work.”

Relaxing one evening a few weeks ago in an upper-deck seat behind home plate at Shea Stadium, a steaming hot dog in one hand and a Spaten Oktoberfest beer in the other — it was Oktoberfest night at Shea, though it was still September — Mr. Newton seemed at home. He had not been to Shea since 1983, but it was hard to tell. Did the old blue bowl of Flushing look any different?

“Nahhhh,” he replied. “All stadiums look the same.”

Mr. Newton, who was wearing warm-up pants, aerodynamic Nike sneakers and a black Medgar Evers hat, settled into his seat and began discussing the fortunes of that other New York team in the Bronx. He expounded on the career of Jose Reyes, the Mets’ All-Star shortstop, who was born a year before he went to prison.

During the game, Mr. Newton got a call on one of his cellphones from an old friend. He invited him to attend a family gathering that Saturday, a nephew’s birthday party he wouldn’t miss for the world.

“I got a whole bunch to get off my chest,” he told the caller with a laugh. “You got like nine hours?”

Mr. Newton’s parents died while he was in prison, but the other members of his family, which includes a multitude of nieces, nephews and cousins, have stood by him and continue to stand by him. His younger brother, Ray, for example, an aerospace engineer who lives in Bloomfield, N.J., often comes to the city to hang out with Alan, doing ordinary things like watching the Giants on television and wandering around Manhattan.

Yet Ray Newton and his siblings know that their brother is still struggling to maintain the basics of his life. He does not have his own apartment; he splits his time between a friend’s place in Harlem and the home of his other brother, Anthony, in Canarsie. He is exploring the possibility of going to court to seek compensation for his wrongful conviction, but when he was released from prison he received nothing.

Mr. Newton is earning a little money doing counseling and clerical work at the Male Development and Empowerment Center at Medgar Evers, where ex-convicts and young men from struggling backgrounds go to seek help. But he needs help from his family to buy basics like food and clothing, and, perhaps more important, to provide camaraderie and support.
“The transitioning is still a little rough on him,” Ray Newton said. “If he’s going somewhere for the first time, he wants somebody with him. It’s strange to go from being isolated to the heart of New York City.”

In their time together, Ray Newton has been able to assess small changes in his brother’s personality; while the Alan Newton of old was a little sloppy and disorganized, today he makes an effort to keep his life in order. “Al used to pay me and my little sister to clean his room and tidy up his stuff,” Ray said. “And now, to see how he’s very organized, it’s shocking to me.”
Even so, after years of communicating solely with visitors, prison officials, lawyers and fellow inmates, Mr. Newton is ready to greet life again. Riding the No. 7 train home from the Mets game that September night, he stretched out comfortably on a row of shiny orange and yellow seats. “It’s just good talking to people again,” he said, describing the experience of randomly meeting strangers on 42nd Street, asking for directions or just chatting. Half-smiling, he gazed out the window. “I missed this, you know?”

As the train descended into the ground, it hurtled past Pearson Place, the street where the evidence that brought Mr. Newton his freedom was held and presumed lost for so many years. But he did not notice. He was looking forward to getting back to the city.

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