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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Innocent man exonerated after 22 years in prison

This article appeared in the Greenwich Time on November 2, 2006:

Innocent man tells of ordeal
Exonerated after 22 years in prison

By Martin B. Cassidy
Staff Writer

If not for the interest of the Innocence Project, Alan Newton's quest for the DNA evidence needed to reverse his rape conviction might have stalled forever, he said yesterday."Nobody wanted to take the time to deal with a convicted armed felon until the Innocence Project helped," said Newton, who spent 22 years in New York state prisons for a rape he didn't commit.

Newton, who was freed in July, spoke to the Greenwich Retired Men's Association yesterday morning about the New York-based group affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, which has so far freed 185 prisoners nationwide through retesting of crime-scene DNA.

For 11 years Newton was told the cache of evidence, including the attacker's DNA, had been misplaced or destroyed. But in November 2005, the Innocence Project got a Bronx prosecutor to unearth the materials in a storage barrel in a Queens warehouse, the very same spot where it had been inventoried and catalogued. The test results ultimately set Newton free.

Newton said he never completely lost hope that the truth would someday be known.

"They gave me all kinds of excuses and I kept hope that they would find it," said Newton. "I kept my hope up. Well, it was sitting in the same barrel, but nobody wanted to take the time to deal with it."

In June 1984, Newton said he was living in New York City, working as a salesman for Bell System and engaged to be married. Then a rape victim picked his mug shot -- taken because of a 5-year-old misdemeanor assault conviction -- out of a book of hundreds, and later she and a convenience store clerk identified him as her assailant.

In May 1985, Newton was convicted of rape, robbery and assault and sentenced to 13 to 30 years for sexually assaulting the woman in an abandoned building in the Bronx. The prosecution based its case on the flawed identifications, Newton said.

At his trial, Newton's fiancee testified she was with Newton watching a movie the night of the attack, he said.

"I was keeping my nose clean and trying to bank some money for college," Newton said of that time. "The things I did when I was young came back to haunt me."

In 1994 he requested post-conviction DNA testing, but the court and police officials said the evidence was lost, he said.

He did the "New York tour" of the prison system, living among hardened criminals in Sing Sing and Attica, earning dozens of college credits but also suffering disciplinary consequences for getting into fights, he said.

Newton said he struggled to maintain his hope that he would prove his innocence.

"When you're an innocent man it's harder than being a guy who is trying to get out on a technicality," Newton said.

"My mother died in 1986 of a broken heart and my dad died five years ago. Neither of them saw my exoneration, but I hope they are smiling down."

The investigative flaws which lead to wrongful convictions include shaky witness identifications and confessions gained by pressure or physical abuse, while forensic foul-ups with fingerprints or biological evidence are often egregious, Audrey Levitin, the Innocence Project's director of development, told the audience.

Levitin cited the case of Stephan Cowans, whose 1997 conviction for shooting a Boston police officer was overturned in 2004 when the Innocence Project established that the gunman's fingerprint was somehow transposed onto a card labeled as Cowans' prints.That case spurred a massive internal investigation in the Boston Police Department and a $3.2 million civil settlement for Cowans.So far 22 states have adopted legislation governing compensation for the exonerated, Levitin said.

State Sen. Andrew Mc-Donald, D-Stamford, head of the Judiciary Committee, said in a telephone interview that the Connecticut legislature will draft a bill in January to establish a system for compensating the wrongly convicted. Lawmakers have been considering the systems adopted in other states to try to determine what type of compensation is fair based on factors that contributed to the conviction.

After Newton's talk, Chuck Standard, 87, said he would probably donate to the Innocence Project, and that Newton's fortitude impressed him."I didn't know about this group until today, but now I want to learn more about it," Standard said. "I don't know how that man isn't more bitter after 22 years in jail."

Barry Nova, 73, said he imagines there are thousands of wrongly convicted prisoners in the justice system trying to prove their innocence."If they've freed 185 individuals, how many do you think are out there?" Nova asked.Newton said he was exploring a lawsuit for damages, but had yet to file it. He said he hopes to become a lawyer after he graduates from Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, which he is attending on a scholarship from the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund.

Newton said that giving presentations about his wrongful conviction helps him deal with it."It's very important for me," Newton said. "It's like if you have a wound or cut, it's good to let it have some air."

Copyright © 2006, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

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