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Wrongly convicted man wins $18M verdict

A New York man who spent more than two decades in prison for rape and was later exonerated by DNA evidence has won an $18 million verdict against the City of New York, claiming it thwarted his efforts to obtain that evidence for years.

“The case was really about something quite simple,” said John F. Schutty, Jr., who represented the plaintiff. “He claimed he was innocent for years. He wanted access to the DNA evidence in the case, and he was frustrated at every turn.”

Alan Newton was convicted in 1985 based largely on the testimony of eyewitnesses, even though a rape kit was used to collect a sperm sample from the victim.
Although Newton’s criminal defense attorney chose not to seek DNA testing for trial, Newton sought post-conviction access to the evidence beginning in 1988 and was denied, Schutty said. In 1994 he made a formal request for the rape kit evidence for testing, but the kit was not located until 2005, when it was found in a police department warehouse.

When the evidence was tested, the DNA from the sample did not match Newton. He was released from prison in 2006.

“He knew when he was in prison reading about [advances in] DNA testing that he had to get his hands on that rape kit,” Schutty said.

After his release, Newton sued the city and three city officials for civil rights violations under §1983, First Amendment access to court violations and Fourteenth Amendment due process violations. He claimed that the city’s system for storing and tracking evidence used in trials after conviction was shoddy and that the city showed reckless disregard for his constitutional rights. He and also claimed intentional infliction of emotional distress against the city officials who failed to locate the rape kit.

‘Preparation and organization’
In preparation for trial, Schutty, a solo practitioner, hired a legal team to work on the case full-time: a recent law school graduate whose offer to Skadden Arps had been deferred and two paralegals.

“They spent two full months helping me prepare,” Schutty said. “It was a document-intensive case and they helped me organize the 450 trial exhibits. Everything was organized so well that after the trial, the jury complimented me on my preparation and organization.”

During the four-week trial, Schutty focused on Newton’s repeated efforts to gain access to the physical evidence, and how long it took the city to locate it.

“We did a timeline to show how many times he requested the evidence from the City of New York, and we also showed the response at different times,” Schutty said. “The jury told us, post-verdict, that that was very effective.”
Schutty also brought in witnesses from the Innocence Project, an organization that aided Newton and has helped a host of other prisoners in bids to obtain DNA evidence.

“They testified that in 50 percent of cases, the City of New York has been unable to produce evidence in a post-conviction context,” Schutty. “And in those 50 percent of cases, they were unable to provide an explanation for what happened. That is what killed it” for the city.

Schutty also brought in two other prisoners whose efforts to obtain DNA evidence had been unsuccessful.
“You could hear the chains coming off in the witness room,” Schutty said. “One had been stabbed in the eye [in prison.] The jury was very angry.”

No settlement offer
No formal settlement offers were made before or during the trial, although the city made a verbal offer of about $1 million. However, Schutty and his client believed the case was worth upwards of $24 million. When a magistrate judge suggested a figure somewhere in between, Schutty and his client thought about it, but decided to decline.
In the end, the jury ruled against the city on the constitutional claims and against two city officials for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In the damages phase of the bifurcated trial, Schutty said he chose not to seek punitives. “The judge encouraged me not to seek punitive damages,” Schutty said. “It was a very appealing case to the jury, [and] we didn’t want to push it and lose credibility. The jurors may have thought we were being greedy.”

Jurors ultimately awarded $18 million based on the failure to turn over the rape kit between Newton’s formal request in 1994 and 2005. Schutty said Newton will appeal the denial of relief for the period between Newton’s initial request for DNA evidence in 1988 and 1994.

Since his release, Newton has finished college, taken the LSAT and plans to attend law school. He now works in the admissions department of the City University of New York.
“He wants to help other people,” Schutty said.

The city released a statement in response to requests for comment.
“We are disappointed with the verdict and plan to appeal it,” the statement read.

Plaintiffs’ attorney: John F. Schutty, III of New York.
Defense attorney: Arthur G. Larkin, Corporation Counsel of the City of New York.
The case: Newton v. City of New York; Oct. 19, 2010; U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; Judge Shira A. Scheindlin.

By Kimberly Atkins
Staff writer
Published: October 28, 2010

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