MANHATTAN (CN) – A man who spent more than two decades in prison after being wrongly convicted for rape cannot collect a jury’s award of $18 million in damages, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin’s decision to vacate the multimillion award for Alan Newton stands in contrast to her decisions while presiding over the four-week trial, Newton’s attorney now claims. Scheindlin had previously refused the defendants’ motions for summary judgment, holding that the constitutional claims were ripe for litigation, and her rulings on reargument and suggested jury charges also seemed to favor Newton, attorney John Schutty III told Courthouse News.
In a 31-page decision, Scheindlin said she is sympathetic to Newton’s situation but ultimately found that the jury made the wrong choice.
“The story of Alan Newton’s wrongful incarceration for rape and assault is a familiar and troubling one for this Court,” Scheindlin wrote. “Newton was convicted in 1985, primarily on the basis of eyewitness testimony. No DNA evidence was offered at trial, as such testing was not available or trustworthy at that time.”
In August 1994, New York City passed a new law allowing convicted persons to get DNA testing if the court determines it may have affected the outcome of the verdict.
In 2004, the city passed an amendment to that law, allowing the court to identify certain evidence for testing, but – crucially for Scheindlin – not holding the city liable if the evidence cannot be located.
Between 1994 and 2002, Newton successfully won permission three times to conduct DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene, the order states.
“[B]ut the City of New York was unable to locate the rape kit containing the biological evidence critical to his freedom,” Scheindlin wrote. “When the rape kit was finally found in 2005, DNA tests excluded Newton as the source of the sperm collected from the victim. Newton’s conviction was vacated by the New York Supreme Court and he was released from prison in 2006.”
Newton sued the city, his arresting officers and other officials in July 2007 for negligence, civil rights violations and emotional distress.
After a 3.5-week trial that stretched through October, a federal jury awarded Newton $18 million from the city, and held two of the four individual defendants – Sergeant Patrick J. McGuire and Chief Jack Trabitz – liable for $92,000 and $500,000 in damages, respectively.
On Nov. 10, 2010, the defendants filed a motion to set aside the verdict, which Scheindlin granted on Thursday.
“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,” Scheindlin wrote.
“[A]s sympathetic as I am to Newton’s claims, no reasonable juror could find that any municipal actor deprived Newton of a federal right based on the evidence proffered at trial,” she added. “Newton must seek relief for any extant claims in the state courts.”
City representatives praised the decision.
“Although this case involved difficult circumstances, we believe the court ruled correctly on the law in finding that the City did not violate Mr. Newton’s due process rights,” Arthur Larkin, senior counsel of the Special Federal Litigation Division, said in a statement.
In a phone interview, Newton’s attorney, Schutty, called the decision a “shocking development” that he planned to appeal.
Schutty III said that the city had records with the location of the rape kit on file in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office and a local police precinct.
“They did not perform a reasonable search,” Schutty told Courthouse News.
He added that officials were “lying” when they told Newton that the kit was missing or destroyed.
These claims served as the basis for his lawsuit.
“[Scheindlin] says it’s mere negligence,” Schutty said. “That’s not what the jury found.”
Schutty said that he will pursue claims in state court as Scheindlin recommended, but added that a federal jury deserved a say in “what [Newton’s] time is worth when he was kept in a cage.”
“To say that there’s no constitutional violation when a state actor has exculpatory evidence that it didn’t produce under a state statute is illogical,” he added.
Michael Cardozo, corporation counsel of the New York City Law Department, said he was “pleased” with the decision.
“This was a complicated and hard-fought case,” Cardozo said. “The city’s potential liability was very substantial. Nevertheless, we felt strongly that the city was not liable, and are pleased that the court agreed with our position.”