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New York Jury Awards Wrongfully Convicted Man $18.5 Million, but Court Grants Motion to Set Aside Verdict

On November 2, 2010, a New York federal jury awarded $18.5 million to a man who was cleared of a rape conviction after serving more than two decades in prison. At the time it was the largest award to a wrongfully convicted person in New York City.

Alan Newton was convicted in 1985 of rape, robbery and assault, primarily based on eyewitness testimony. He fought his conviction after he was sentenced to 13½ to 40 years, and requested DNA testing in August 1994.

The New York City Police Department finally located the rape kit in 2005, more than ten years after Newton and his attorneys had requested the evidence, despite claims over the previous decade that the kit could not be found and was presumed destroyed. Testing revealed that the DNA collected from the victim did not match Newton, and he was exonerated and released on July 6, 2006.

Newton filed suit against the city, and his civil case went to trial in October 2010. Newton’s attorney, John F. Schulty III, argued that the Police Department had employed a shoddy system of storing and tracking post-conviction evidence, including DNA evidence. For years that evidence was tracked by paper and pen. “Only this year are they attempting to introduce a bar code system,” Schulty stated.

“The City of New York,” he continued, “has been engaged in a pattern of failing to pay proper attention to their duties to preserve post-conviction criminal evidence and its associated paperwork.” As a result, Newton remained behind bars for over a decade after he first requested DNA testing.

The jury agreed, finding the city had violated Newton’s constitutional rights, and the two police officers who failed to timely produce the requested DNA evidence were liable for infliction of emotional distress. The jury awarded $18 million against the city, $500,000 against Chief Jack J. Trabitz and $92,000 against Sgt. Patrick J. McGuire.

The Innocence Project, which supported Newton’s claim, said that over the past five years the city had produced DNA evidence in only about half of the requested 50 cases. In the other cases it could neither produce the evidence nor explain where it was located.

Upon being released from prison, Newton enrolled as a full-time student at Medgar Evans College. He planned to apply for law school.

“I want to work with people that really need that legal assistance that’s just not there for them,” he said. “There are so many issues where people need competent counsel and it’s just not out there. I think I’ll jump into it with both arms.”

Unfortunately, in a continuation of the miscarriage of justice that Newton suffered during two decades of being locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, on May 12, 2011 the U.S. District Court granted the city’s motion to set aside the jury verdict pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). As a result, Newton will not receive a penny of the $18.5 million award and his lawsuit was dismissed.

The court found that Newton had failed to prove that city employees, including Trabitz and McGuire, had deliberately withheld evidence or violated his due process rights. Thus, although the city may have been negligent, he did not show a constitutional violation necessary to prevail on his federal claims.

“Notwithstanding grave deficiencies in the city’s evidence management system,” the court wrote, “Newton’s due process claim cannot be sustained absent proof that a city official acted with the requisite constitutional culpability in withholding evidence.” See: Newton v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:07-cv-06211-SAS.

Additional sources: New York Times, New York Post,

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Related legal case

Newton v. City of New York