On the surface, Alan Newton and Scott Fappiano have led dissimilar lives. Newton, who is black, was born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx. Fappiano is a Brooklyn native of Italian descent. But ordeals in the New York criminal justice system have left them with much in common. Both men are in their mid 40’s and were just recently exonerated after being incarcerated for 21 years each for rapes they did not commit.
While imprisoned, each man had been told by the NYPD that the forensic evidence required to overturn his conviction was missing – until the Innocence Project, a legal clinic in NYC that employs DNA evidence to free the wrongfully convicted, mounted efforts leading to the discovery that the biological material for both cases was sitting in NYPD storage facilities all along. (See DNA Evidence Lost and Found as Years in Prison Grind By, City Limits Weekly #555, Oct. 2, 2006.)
At a New York State Assembly hearing in Manhattan last week, Newton and Fappiano met for the first time to voice support for a series of legislative measures designed to improve access to DNA material for those who maintain their innocence in criminal cases, and to overhaul the way the police and five District Attorney’s offices preserve, catalogue and handle crime scene evidence. “It’s almost 2007. Why can’t the evidence be inventoried?” asked Fappiano.
During the public inquiry, convened by Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), chairman of the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Codes, the lawmaker proposed the creation of an independent statewide commission, composed of a broad coalition of criminal justice experts, to monitor post-conviction innocence claims and the safeguarding of physical evidence for DNA testing. “It should be a no-brainer to allow for more accessibility so that someone in prison can show their innocence,” Lentol said after the hearing. “We need to make effective use of this DNA technology because Alan and Scott were not the last innocent men in prison. There are more still in there.”
The Innocence Project is now re-investigating the decades-old cases of nearly two dozen other New York City men that had been closed after NYPD officials said the evidence could not be located. Since its inception in 1992, the Project has helped exonerate 185 wrongfully convicted people across the nation, including 23 here in New York City.
Citing 21 states with statutes regulating collection and storage of evidence in criminal cases, from Georgia to California to Illinois, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld strongly endorsed revamping the city’s long-standing procedures at the hearing. In all criminal cases the NYPD is responsible for collecting and storing evidence at facilities in each borough, including the central repository at Pearson Place Warehouse in Long Island City, Queens. Oversight of the evidence inside the storerooms is the joint responsibility of the NYPD’s Property Clerk’s Office and each borough’s District Attorney’s Office. “The problem is that they don’t even know what’s there. The recordkeeping is inadequate and they simply can’t find the evidence when they’re asked to retrieve it,” Neufeld said.
Each piece of crime scene evidence that’s collected and preserved by the NYPD – from a rape kit to a cigarette butt – is catalogued on paper, assigned a voucher number and later sent to a private laboratory for forensic testing at the courts’ request. At the hearing, NYPD Assistant Chief Robert J. Giannelli, the executive officer of the Detective Bureau, adamantly defended the department’s handling of the more than one million pieces of evidence in its possession.
“We have a paper system, but we’re confident in our paper system, and we put a lot of resources in being able to recover evidence so that any innocent person who wants [it] can find it,” said Giannelli, who cited the cases of Newton and Fappiano as proof that the evidence could be tracked and retrieved through the system.
The NYPD, which is currently assisting the Innocence Project in re-investigating the previously-closed New York cases, maintains that it has adopted a barcode system to track the material and has formed a study group to explore ways to modernize its catalogue. But Assemblyman Lentol, who characterized the Pearson Place Warehouse as a “dump” at the hearing, was disappointed at the NYPD’s unshaken defense of its storage procedures. “Obviously, we saw how two people can live in the same city and live in two different worlds,” he said, adding that he plans to file a request to tour Pearson Place.
Crucial to enacting any proposed legislation, criminal justice experts say, is support from prosecutors. “We strongly believe that DNA technology is beneficial in serving the interests of justice. To the extent that we are able to utilize existing technology to better preserve and catalogue DNA evidence, we can not only prosecute the guilty more effectively but also exonerate the innocent which is equally important,” Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson said in a statement to City Limits.
But Johnson wasn’t at the hearing, and although the Manhattan District Attorney’s office said they had representatives in attendance, Assemblyman Lentol didn’t know it. “We invited all of them to attend and they didn’t send anybody. This isn’t just about the police because they also operate a great deal of control over the evidence,” said Lentol, who was an assistant D.A. in Brooklyn in the 1970’s. “We need an endorsement from prosecutors to get these measures passed. This issue is just too important for them to be silent.”