Free At Last

DNA, social media, recanted testimony: all have played a role in exonerating about 2,000 Black men since 1989, many of whom are reclaiming their lives after being wrongly imprisoned. As they struggle to regain their footing in society, there is one thing that has proven to be just as valuable as obtaining freedom: redemption.

"I’ma cut you so you can’t ID me, bitch!”

Alan Newton heard himself saying the words, but his mind was unable to connect with the threat or with being told to step forward during a police lineup with five other men, individuals with physical characters similar to those of the suspect but are not actual suspects, known as fillers. Later, he was informed that a woman who had been raped and mutilated had identified him as her attacker.  The Kafkaesque ordeal began in 1984 and sent Newton journeying through the annals of the American judicial system. It unfolded with a knock on the door of his family’s home in Queens, N.Y.

“There were four police,” recalls Newton, speaking in a calm tone. “I knew it was serious. I was like, ‘What’s really going on?’ They told me I could go with them in cuffs or without cuffs. I went and didn’t come home until 22 years later.”  Before the NYPD-led confrontation at his parents’ home, before he repeated the scripted sentence and before his accuser had pointed him out, he had been a 22-year-old customer service rep with a good head for numbers, aspirations of becoming a bank manager, a love of the Knicks and plans to marry his fiancée. It all seemed lost to him when he was sentenced to 13 to 40 years in prison for rape and assault.

Although that should have been the end of a familiar story—

Black man incarcerated and the key thrown away—Newton maintained his innocence and began researching his case and filing paperwork through the courts for 10 years. His brother Tony helped fuel the cause by systematically making phone calls to The Innocence Project, a national nonprofit organization based in  the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City, that helps exonerate convicted prisoners, primarily via DNA evidence.  The organization receives hundreds of letters each month from inmates, according to Vanessa Potkin, a senior staff attorney.

“As soon as I read the transcript, I knew something was wrong,” says Potkin. “His innocence claim was so strong. One problem was the inability to locate evidence from an old case. I was really pessimistic because the rape kit was missing. I didn’t want him to get his hopes up … because the NYPD couldn’t find the evidence. But we couldn’t, in good faith, close out his case without trying.”
In 1989, the dawn of DNA ushered into courtrooms definitive proof that was equivalent to the finger of God reaching from the heavens and pointing out the guilty party. Indeed, DNA may be a godsend, especially when you look at how incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color.

According to The Innocence Project, more than 75 percent of convictions with which it is involved are overturned due to DNA evidence. Other reasons for wrongful convictions include perjury or false accusations (51 percent), mistaken eyewitness identification (43 percent) and official misconduct (42 percent), based on a report by the National Registry of Exonerations, which has listed about 900 cases since 1989. One in three Black men will likely be sent to prison, usually while in his 20s. According to the Department of Education, African-American students are arrested far more than their White classmates. African-American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration, according to the Sentencing Project, which reports that 58 percent of them are sent to adult prisons.
In Newton’s case, the rape victim’s jeans were recovered and tested but yielded no DNA; however, no one was more surprised than Potkin when in 2005 she got a call stating the rape kit had been located in a central storage warehouse in Queens, where it had been misfiled in a mountain of biological evidence.

“It was quite amazing,” she recalls. “It was utter shock. I called Al and told him, ‘We found the rape kit.’ He immediately said, ‘I’m coming home.’”

Newton was released from prison based on DNA evidence from the recovered rape kit in 2006.  He was awarded $18.5 million by a federal jury, which he still has not received and continues to fight for on the grounds that the police acted in bad faith. States vary in the way they store evidence. In New York City, the Innocence Project found a “no evidence, no records” rate in 59 percent of the cases; by comparison, in Dallas and Houston—the largest cities in Texas, the state listed as third among the top 10 for most exonerations—no record of disposition could be found in just 14