October 23, 2007
Contributed by Kiawana Rich, Staten Island Advance
In the United States, an individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Forty-six-year-old Alan Newton, who served nearly half his life in prison for a crime he did not commit, was not afforded that right.
In 1985, Newton was convicted of rape, robbery, and assault committed in the Bronx and sentenced to 40 years behind bars.
He had tried unsuccessfully to have the rape kit in his case tested for DNA. But it wasn't until lawyers from the nationally acclaimed Innocence Project became involved that a judge granted Newton's request.
After the rape kit was found, DNA evidence exonerated Newton, and after serving 21 years, the Brooklyn man was released from prison in 2006.
But his work is not done.
Now a student at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, with plans to study law, Newton is often a guest lecturer for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization started in 1992 to assist prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted and whose innocence could be proven through DNA testing.
Currently, 208 people, including some on death row, have been freed through its efforts. Last night, Newton shared his story with about 60 people during a lecture in Wagner College's Spiro Hall, Grymes Hill.
In his case, Newton noted, there were some major problems including mistaken eyewitness identification and preservation of evidence.
Unique to his case, the woman was initially attacked once in a park, then attacked a second time in a building. Both the woman and a store clerk identified Newton as the attacker. There were two sets of charges for each location. While Newton was acquitted of the park attack, he was convicted of the building attack, despite testimony he spent the night in Queens with his fiancee.
For 12 years after he was in prison, he kept fighting his conviction, filing motions in state and federal courts to get the DNA evidence tested. Claims were made that the kit couldn't be found, it had been misplaced or was presumed destroyed.
"All these different responses told me something wasn't kosher," said Newton. "It gave me the inspiration to keep the litigation going."
In 2005, with the help of the Innocence Project, the rape kit was found in the same evidence barrel it had been placed in years earlier. "They found the evidence," Newton said, "after years of telling me they couldn't find it."
"The system is broken in many ways," said Rebecca Brown, a policy analyst for the Innocence Project. "We know something is wrong there and we want to know what we can do to fix it."
Mistaken eyewitness identification is a problem in 75 percent of cases, she said, as well as preservation of biological evidence.
"It shows us until we can say with utter certainty that mistakes aren't happening, that we should not be using the death penalty," she said.
Wagner College sociology professor Michael Christiano, 59, of Great Kills, said the lecture is part of a new "death penalty sociology course" he developed to challenge students and help them arrive at their own conclusions as to the constitutionality of the death penalty.
The Innocence Project was instrumental in gaining a Staten Island man his freeÂ´dom.
In 1998, James O'Donnell of Port Richmond Center was tried, convicted and sent to prison for supposedly sodomizing and assaulting a 55-year-old Stapleton woman in Clove Lakes Park on May 24, 1997.
O'Donnell maintained his innocence.
In 2000, thanks to the work of the Innocence Project, a DNA sample that had never been entered into evidence at the trial was tested and conclusively excluded O'Donnell as the rapist.