MANHATTAN (CN) - Having spent more than two decades behind bars for a rape he did not commit, Alan Newton spent the better part of a decade suing New York City for his ordeal, only to have a $18.5 million verdict in his favor set aside four years ago.
The 2nd Circuit finally compensated Newton on Thursday by reinstating his award in a unanimous decision that gives the city more strict obligations to turn over DNA evidence that could exculpate the wrongly convicted.
Newtown's attorney, John Schutty, said in a phone interview that his client, now 53, had been "relieved, joyful, ecstatic," upon hearing the news.
"He was so happy," he said. "I believe he was crying when I was on the telephone with him."
Convicted of a vicious sexual assault in 1985, Newton was for nearly the first decade of his imprisonment denied the right to probe the evidence in the rape kit that later would exonerate him. New York City changed that with its passage of a law in 1994.
An amendment to that law a decade later allowed courts to identify certain evidence for testing, but, fatefully for the U.S. District Court, did not hold the city liable if the evidence could not be located.
Newton used these statutes to win permission three times for DNA testing of the crime-scene evidence, but the city could not find the rape kit until 2005.
The DNA test excluded Newton as a source of the sperm, and New York State Supreme Court vacated his conviction a year later.
The actual perpetrator of the rape, who left the victim with a missing eye and four broken ribs, was never found.
Newton was released to his home in the Bronx without "a dime from the city or the state," as well as a disrupted education because of his refusal to enter a sex-offender program in prison, his lawyer says.
By the time of his release, Newton had spent 22 years in prison, where he missed the death of the single mother who raised him. He later earned his bachelor's degree before landing a job with the Black Men's Initiative for the City University of New York.
Suing New York City in 2007, Newton learned during discovery that "hundreds, if not thousand" of piece of evidence in the city's evidence vaults had gone missing, his lawyer said.
"I think Mr. Newton's suit itself had an effect on the city," Schutty said. "They have since gone to an evidence bar-code system for new evidence, but what the lawsuit determined is that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of evidence lost or destroyed. And many men like Alan Newton who were incarcerated on sex crimes before the advent on DNA evidence were unable to get their evidence for testing. And they will have no remedy."
The proceedings themselves have been a "whipsaw" for Newton's defense, Schutty said.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin set the stage for a jury trial in refusing to grant the city's dismissal and summary-judgment motions.
That jury then heard evidence for nearly a month before awarding Newton millions.
"We were stunned when, six months after the jury verdict, [Judge Scheindlin] set it aside, dismissed the complaint and advised us she never should have presented it to the jury in the first place," Schutty said.
While declaring herself "sympathetic" to Newton's claims, Scheindlin found that the evidence at trial showed no due-process violation.
"The tragic fact that the evidence was not actually located and produced for testing until 2005 does not constitute a violation of Newton's procedural due process rights," she wrote.
Disagreeing Thursday, the 2nd Circuit wrote: "The NYPD's evidence-management system failed miserably in Newton's case."
"We do not decide what specific city procedure is necessary to manage and track evidence," Judge Raymond Lohier wrote for a three-judge panel. "We simply reinstate a jury verdict that found that the then-existing system was inadequate and that the city, through its agents, servants, or employees, intentionally or recklessly administered an evidence management system that was constitutionally inadequate and that prevented Newton from vindicating his liberty interest in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process."
Judges Gerard Lynch and Christopher Droney joined the opinion.
"We are confident that the evidence management failures identified in this case have been or will soon be remedied with the help of modern technological advances and stronger record-keeping practices," the opinion states.
Newton did not return a request for comment by press time.
The New York City Law Department said it is reviewing the decision.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.