Thursday, March 5, 2015

Court reinstates $18 million DNA innocence verdict

Here is another case where someone was released from prison after DNA evidence proved that he was innocent. The ex-inmate then sued New York City over this, and the jury awarded him $18 million for spending over 20 years in the slammer. The trial court took away the verdict. The Court of Appeals gives it back.

The case is Newton v. New York, decided on February 26, nearly 2.5 years after oral argument. Newton sued under the Due Process Clause because the City lost his DNA evidence sometime in the 1980s, preventing him from proving his innocence. In 2006, after the evidence was found, Newton was exonerated and became a free man.

Newton's verdict is reinstated because a DNA freedom law in 1994 gave him a liberty interest in demonstrating his innocence. A 2009 ruling from the Supreme Court, District Attorney's Office v. Osbourne, supports Newton's position, because in that case Alaska's post-conviction relief statute, which gave people the right to prove their innocence through DNA evidence, resembles the law in New York.

Newton also was entitled to procedures to prove his innocence. Those procedures were violated because "when State law confers a liberty interest in proving a prisoner's innocence with DNA evidence, there must be an adequate system in place for accessing that evidence that does not 'offend some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental,' transgress any recognized principle of fundamental fairness in operation.'" The evidence management system in NYC "failed miserably in Newton's case," the Second Circuit (Lohier, Lynch Droney) says. The evidence was misplaced, not an isolated practice.

Newton presented evidence that thousands of sometimes decades‐old yellow invoices at the Bronx property clerk’s office – out of a total of not more than 3200 such invoices per year – were in old out‐to‐court folders that had improperly never been closed out; evidence listed as “out‐to‐court” for over twenty years was lost; the PCD had lost track of and was unable to retrieve evidence in an unreasonably large number of cases (involving evidence older than five years); several high‐level officials tasked with supervising the NYPD’s evidence management system were unfamiliar with the PCD’s procedures; and the PCD’s dysfunction had an unconstitutionally deleterious effect on case closings in a large number of cases, including, obviously, Newton’s. The problem in Newton’s case was with the retrieval of evidence that was sitting there all along. Despite the preservation of the evidence that proved crucial in exonerating Newton, the PCD was unable to locate it from 1994 to 2005 and inaccurately represented that it had been destroyed either in a fire or pursuant to a regular disposal procedure that may not even have existed. Had Newton accepted the City’s recklessly erroneous representations about the evidence at face value, he might have remained in prison far longer than he did.

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