Innocence Project on Campus to Raise Awareness

news-innocence-pg-3On September 13, the non-profit organization Innocence Project, held a presentation on campus to raise awareness of wrongfully convicted persons.

Speaking about his experience was Alan Newton, a victim of eyewitness misidentification which resulted in the theft of 22 years of his life. In front of an audience of over 150 students, faculty and members of the public, Newton outlined the arduous process that he and Innocence Project went through to make him a free man.

The event was held in Young Auditorium and lasted for 45 minutes. He began his story by mentioning the movie Ghostbusters was his alibi. With scrupulous details explaining the morning of his arrest, the confusing police line-ups and the onerous task of locating the rape-kit for testing, Newton put into context the frustration of a man who was convicted of a crime he did not commit.

“In 1994, with the advent of DNA testing, I was granted access to have DNA analysis conducted on the rape-kit from the crime. This was to be done by an independent testing facility,” said Newton, who is 50 years-old. “The only problem was finding the kit - it had disappeared.” For years, Newton continuously sent petitions to New York State courts; he was always denied.

Finally in 2004, Newton decided to reach out to Innocence Project seeking aid in his fight to find the missing evidence and have it tested. The organization, according to its mission statement, “assists prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing.”

Newton believed that having Innocence Project on his side was the best chance for him to prove his innocence. “One of the first things the lawyer said to me was that there was a good chance the rape-kit didn’t exist anymore. I told her that I had nothing to lose.”

Luckily for Newton, the evidence was located two years later. Through the persistent work of Innocence Project, the kit was found in an NYPD warehouse in Queens which contained evidence from crimes that date as far back as 50 years.

Newton described the facility as being a vast wasteland of documents and pieces of evidence. Within a few months, DNA testing was conducted. The results would prove Newton’s innocence.

“On July 6, 2006, I walked out of jail a free man,” said Newton. “I like to tell people that is my born-again birthday.”
Since being founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, both civil rights and criminal-defense attorneys, Innocence Project has enabled 296 other wrongfully convicted men and women to celebrate their born-again birthdays just like Newton.

According to the organization, 3,000 letters, most of which are sent by prisoners, are received annually asking the non-profit for assistance in proving their innocence through DNA testing

Elizabeth Webster, Publications Manager for Innocence Project said, “When the organization receives letters requesting our assistance, we do not try to determine guilt or innocence on paper. Rather, there is a diligent process of doing research on the cases such as obtaining the trial transcripts, finding evidence information, and determining if there is sufficient DNA evidence that can be used to prove the prisoners’ innocence.”
For Newton, patience and hope paid off and his record was expunged of all charges. Since his return to society six years ago, he has obtained his college degree, got married, had a child and co-founded a non-profit organization called AFTER (Advocates for Transformation and Exonoree Rights).

“The purpose of AFTER is to help other exonorees with issues that they will deal with when they come home,” said Newton. Some of those issues are medical coverage, finding housing, job searches and education. Unlike parolees, exonorees are not given assistance by the state upon their release.

Newton believes that telling his story to an audience is therapeutic. “Speaking to others and receiving feedback from what I talk about gives me the therapy that I need which helps me move forward with my life.”

The intensity of the subject matter could be seen on many of the faces as they exited Young Auditorium after the presentation.

Freshman Mitchell Parker, a biology major, was not only impressed by Newton’s presence, but was also left pondering about the message that was delivered. “That is an amazing story. It makes me think about the power of freedom and how it can be taken for granted,” said Parker. “His determination and hope are truly inspiring.”

For Christine Alexander, a freshman majoring in math and computer science, the presentation gave her a different perspective on the criminal justice system. “His story opened my eyes about the wrongs that occur in the judicial system. I didn’t realize that so many were affected by this unfortunate problem,” said Alexander. “It also made me think about volunteering for Innocence Project.”

Before Newton began the presentation of his struggle with the justice system, Webster, who accompanied him in the front of the room, read a quote from David Foster Wallace which sums up the message of their visit. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and being able to truly care about other people.”