What does a former bank teller from the Bronx do with an $18.5 million windfall after spending more than two decades behind bars for a rape he did not commit?
Alan Newton isn't quite sure yet. A day after a federal jury in Manhattan ordered the city of New York to pay him the award for botching his case, Newton said the decision is still sinking in.
"It’s been a long time getting to this point," Newton told msnbc.com in a telephone interview Wednesday. "I’m still going through mixed emotions because I always felt that this should have been taken care of a lot earlier."
In reaching its verdict, the jury concluded that the city had violated Newton's constitutional rights and that two police officers had failed to produce Newton's evidence when requested.
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Newton, now 49, was freed in July 2006 after serving nearly 22 years in prison for a rape, robbery and assault conviction. Newton had asked for DNA testing in 1994, but it wasn't until 2005 that the city was able to locate a rape kit of biological samples taken from the victim. The genetic tests proved that he was not the perpetrator.
"Just the fact that the decision came from a jury of peers means so much because it says that they understand the problems with the police department (evidence) preservation system," Newton said.
"It validates that my struggle was valid. It validates that corrections need to be made. It validates that there’s more people out there similarly situated that are still locked up … and they’re still living with the stigma."
Newton's attorney, John Schutty, said the liability verdict is a significant finding.
"The question is, what remains for other people who are similarly affected by the New York City Police Department not properly managing criminal evidence?" he said. "That goes beyond the dollars in this case."
A spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department told the New York Times the city was disappointed with the verdict and planned to appeal it — meaning it could be a while before Newton actually sees the money.
Newton had been sentenced in 1985 to up to 40 years in prison after being convicted of raping a woman in an abandoned building in the Bronx and cutting her face with a razor.
According to The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and that pursued Newton's case and helped win his release, officials at the Property Clerk's Office claimed they could not find the rape kit over the course of 11 years and presumed it had been destroyed. In November 2005, the kit was found after a search of evidence barrels at a Queens warehouse.
The woman who was raped was 25 years old at the time of the June 23, 1984, incident. She picked Newton's picture out from a series of nearly 200 photos while in the hospital recovering from surgery. She also identified Newton in a lineup and again at trial.
Newton maintained his innocence all along. He said on the day of the attack he went to see the movie "Ghostbusters" in Brooklyn with his fiancee, her daughter and other relatives, then went back to his fiancee's home in Queens.
The woman died in 1991, and so she never knew that the wrong man had been locked up. The actual perpetrator has not been caught.
Newton says he holds no grudges against the victim because he realized during his time in prison that "holding all this bitterness wouldn't do me any good."
"I expressed my sympathy for the victim early on," Newton said. "Both of us have been victimized by the system."
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Newton enrolled at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn after his 2006 release, got a degree and is now working full-time at the City University of New York's Black Male Initiative, a program that focuses on recruiting, retaining and assisting black men in college.
Newton, who lives in an apartment in Manhattan, figures he'll throw a party for his 50th birthday on Aug. 1. And he'd like to enroll in law school in fall 2011. But he isn't sure what he will do long-term with the $18.5 million — an award he calls "positive" — once it's in his possession.
"Everything I've been doing since I’ve gotten exonerated has been to stay on that positive way. I don’t see myself deviating from that path," Newton said.
"My life now will change a little, of course, but what’s inside me that’s important — that won’t change."
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