Just three months ago, New York City native Alan Newton, 45, was incarcerated at the Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, where he prayed daily for his nightmare to end. Convicted of rape and assault charges in 1985, he was in the middle of a 13- to 40-year sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. For more than a decade, he sought to prove his innocence through forensic testing of physical evidence collected and stored by the New York City Police Department.
Those appeals were denied in both state and federal court after the NYPD maintained over the years that the evidence was lost. “They had a lot of different reasons and excuses for why they couldn’t find it. They told me that the paperwork for it was destroyed in fire,” Newton recalls. But the evidence surfaced in 2004 after the Innocence Project, the Manhattan legal clinic that took on Newton’s case, and a Bronx prosecutor convinced the NYPD to conduct a more thorough search of the evidence containers at a facility in Queens.
The evidence, which included the standard collection called a “rape kit,” was found in the same NYPD storage bin where it had been placed two decades ago. “I couldn’t believe that it was found right where it was supposed to be,” Newton said. After DNA tests of the rape kit failed to match Newton, he was exonerated and released in July.
Now the Innocence Project is mounting an aggressive new campaign to reopen the cases of 19 other New York City men who are in prison for crimes they deny committing. Those cases, many of which date back to the 1980s, had been closed after the NYPD told the legal group that the evidence could not be tested for DNA because it could not be found.
The Innocence Project, which has helped to exonerate 183 wrongly convicted individuals nationwide using DNA evidence since 1992, including 21 in New York City, has pushed for sequential lineups and videotaping of custodial police interrogations, among other procedural changes to prevent wrongful imprisonments.
The NYPD, which did not respond to requests for comment from City Limits, preserves crime scene evidence inside multiple storage facilities around the city’s five boroughs. The Pearson Place Warehouse in Long Island City, Queens, the NYPD’s central repository for such material, reportedly contains more than one million pieces of evidence. Still, the NYPD’s storage procedures remain a mystery.
“Pearson Place is the facility where we’ve been having the most trouble finding evidence,” said Vanessa Potkin, an Innocence Project staff attorney who represented Newton. “From what we’ve heard, there are these huge barrels that may be labeled and separated by year, but the evidence inside those barrels [is] just tossed in with no particular type of order. What type of archaic system do we have for storing evidence in this city?”
It’s a question that will be raised at a public hearing in Manhattan next week before the New York State Assembly’s Standing Committee on Codes. The hearing will explore the warehousing and use of biological evidence in post-conviction criminal cases. “What happened to Alan Newton shocks me, but I’m also shocked that we haven’t seen more of a public outcry,” said Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), chairman of the Codes Committee. “We’ve got a lot of questions about how [the NYPD] is handling this evidence and now we’re looking for answers.”
At the hearing, Lentol plans to introduce a range of proposals, including legislation requiring mandatory videotaping of police interrogations and a permanent statewide commission to review and monitor claims of innocence in criminal cases. “Except for creating DNA databases for sex offenders, this issue has largely fallen on deaf ears in the Assembly,” Lentol said. “We pay lip service to the need to protect the innocent and convict the guilty. If there’s a fairly good reason to believe that we have an innocent person, just test the DNA and let it speak for itself. Why should there be any objection?”
After Newton’s exoneration in July, the Innocence Project contacted Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to formally ask for help in retrieving evidence for the number (now 19) of decades-old cases it plans to reopen, plus six other potential wrongful conviction cases the Project is currently investigating. “They indicated a willingness to look into these cases, which is a phenomenal first step. But it’s equally important that we take advantage of the moment to make systemic changes,” Potkin said.
“The hearings are a procedure to learn what the policies are. It’s an indication that people are recognizing that this is a serious problem,” she said.
Elisa Koenderman, the senior Bronx prosecutor in the sex crimes division whose aggressive efforts to secure the evidence in Newton’s case led to his freedom, argues that the criminal justice system must stay open, vigilant and flexible enough to verify claims of innocence. “The message in general throughout the process is to always leave no stone unturned,” Koenderman said. But such efforts will continue to be hampered, advocates argue, until there’s a complete overhaul of storage procedures at facilities like Pearson Place, including adding barcodes to old evidence and revamping the inventory system.
“It’s hard to move forward because we don’t know what the scope of the problem is,” says Potkin. “We all have a shared interest in this. There are district attorneys, who are trying to prosecute old cases, and there’s also the real possibility that innocent people may die in prison unless we fix what is a very chaotic system.”