At a time in their lives when most men are starting careers and families, Bronx native Alan Newton was on trial for a rape he didn’t commit. The 22-year-old was engaged to be married and working for a phone company at the World Trade Center when a rape victim picked his photo out of a lineup. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. He was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to 13.3 to 40 years in prison. Partly because of his refusal to participate in the sex offender program, he was denied parole several times and, eventually, served nearly half his life-21 years-behind bars. Since his release last July, five more New York State men have been proven innocent through DNA testing. They come from all over the state-from Cayuga County to Westchester County to Kings County-and more will surely follow.
The Innocence Project, a pro bono legal clinic that represented Newton in his exoneration, has identified the common causes of wrongful convictions. In the next week, the organization will mark the 200th DNA exoneration nationwide. These DNA exonerations represent an unprecedented data set on wrongful convictions in the U.S. They show us the shortcomings of the criminal justice system that have been proven by hard science. For example, they show us that eyewitness misidentification played a role in 77% of wrongful convictions that were overturned by DNA, and that faulty science played a role in more than one-third of the cases.
Two-thirds of the 200 people exonerated through DNA are African American. Most of the wrongful convictions that were overturned by DNA were rapes; 55% were cross-racial, and of those, 85% involved black defendants.
Actual Innocence, by Innocence Project co-directors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld (with Jim Dwyer, of the New York Times), notes that just 15% of all sexual assaults nationwide involve black assailants and white victims (according to the Justice Department), yet the DNA exoneration cases alone show the starkly disproportionate rate at which black men are prosecuted aggressively (and convicted erroneously) for raping white women. The startling figures remind us that we have not come very far since the first half of the 1900s, when rape was a capital offense in most states, and 90% of those executed for rape were black men who were convicted of raping white women.
The DNA exonerations show us the causes of wrongful convictions and have helped develop reforms that can prevent such injustice in the future. But Scheck and Neufeld are quick to point out that there is one prevalent cause that has not yet been fixed: racism. Asked why he thinks he was wrongfully convicted, Newton says, “Race, economics, there’s a whole bunch of things you can point to. If I’d had more money, I would’ve had a better lawyer. With a better lawyer you get better representation, and with better representation, the court will listen.”
For many of the African American men exonerated through DNA, racism continues to prevent them from fully re-entering society after exoneration. Having served 10, 15, or 25 years for crimes they did not commit, these men often lost opportunities to build families or careers. Starting out from scratch once they are released, they face tremendous obstacles in finding homes or jobs. The stigma of serving time in prison is much harder for a black man to explain than it is for a white man (who is often given the benefit of the doubt when he explains that he was in prison for a crime he did not commit). Some black men who were exonerated have gone on to pursue higher education, start families, and build impressive careers. Since his exoneration, Alan Newton has enrolled at Medgar Evers College on a Thurgood Marshall Scholarship and is studying business administration. Many other exonerees have not adjusted so well, and will continue struggling for years.
Already, these DNA exonerations have transformed criminal justice nationwide. As a direct result, important reforms have been implemented (such as better eyewitness identification procedures, better oversight of crime labs, recording of interrogations, etc.), but these reforms have not yet taken hold everywhere in the nation. New York is not among the states that have implemented procedures that are proven to make eyewitness identification more accurate. New York still has not mandated the electronic recording of custodial interrogations. New Jersey, however, has done both.
Every exoneration provides a “learning moment” about how to make the system better. The first 200 DNA exonerations in the nation are a collective lesson, an opportunity to take stock of what still needs to be done to improve the criminal justice system. While DNA has been the key to releasing these 200 innocent men, DNA exonerations cannot represent the magnitude of the problem or the frequency of wrongful convictions. DNA testing is an option in less than 10% of cases. That makes these 200 exonerees-in this one sense-fortunate.