January 24, 2016

Alan Newton and New York's Flexible Principles of Justice

Courtesy of the Innocence Project
When he ran for mayor, Bill de Blasio made a point of talking about doing what was right and what was just. Based on these basic principles, our mayor-to-be promised to reform the NYPD's Stop and Frisk program and settle the Central Park Five case, and he followed through on both counts, even though both policy calls were politically loaded.

The City engaged in early settlement talks in other serious cases, such as the malicious prosecution and conviction of David Ranta and the wrongful death of Eric Garner. These two settlements were not just right, they were good business. By quickly confronting situations with likely liability and serious damages, the City was able to save money and avoid expensive and divisive litigation. These cases are but a few where New York was willing to take a nuanced view on litigation, to acknowledge its responsibility for its mistakes, and to reconcile that exposure with its obligation to do what is right by its citizens.

So why is Alan Newton getting such a screwing from the City?

To recap, Alan Newton was convicted in 1985 of a Bronx rape and robbery over his protestations of innocence. He repeatedly sought the DNA evidence for testing but it was reported lost by the DA and the NYPD. Many years later it turned up. Subsequent tests conclusively exonerated Newton and his conviction was vacated. By then he had spent 22 years in prison for crimes he had not committed.

Newton sued New York City and various officials in the NYPD, claiming that the City’s evidence management system was so inadequate that it violated his rights to due process and access to the courts. The jury sided with Newton and awarded him $18 million. The district court set aside the verdict but the ruling was reversed and the jury's verdict reinstated by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. (See here for more details on both the conviction and the civil litigation).

This was, by all accounts, justice. Newton was wrongly convicted and lost more than 20 years of his life in the state penitentiary. Put simply, he was wronged by the City and he suffered mightily. A jury heard the evidence and assessed damages. 

One might reasonably think that the City, operating under a principle that injustices must be righted, would pay Mr. Newton's his long overdue compensation. But no, sadly the City is now going back to the trial court to argue that $18 million is too much for Mr. Newton. (Here). While there is an argument to be made in this regard, it brings to mind my recollection of a comment by the late Hon. John E. Sprizzo while chastising a prosecutor "just because you have an argument to make doesn't mean you should always make it. There's such a thing as judgment."

To the extent that de Blasio gives the slightest damn about fairness and justice, he ought to instruct the Law Department to withdraw the motion immediately. Moreover, it is obnoxious, to say the least, to enthusiastically agree to pay the Central Park Five a settlement at a rate of $1 million per year while arguing that the Newton jury's assessment of a significantly lower annual rate is so unreasonable the court shouldn't let it stand.

It is an intellectually dishonest position that makes a mockery of this administration's purported principles and reflects poorly on this Mayor's stated commitment to doing what is right. Pay Alan Newton his money. 

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