Last month, Alan Newton walked out of a Bronx courtroom a free man. Twenty-two years after he was convicted for a brutal rape that he didn't commit, he was finally exonerated. For the first time since 1984, he decided what he would wear and what he would do.
One of the first things he did was approach several dozen reporters to talk about the rape survivor who mistakenly identified him as the perpetrator, leading to his conviction. Before addressing his own wrongful conviction and his new freedom, he said his thoughts were with the rape survivor. His voice choked with emotion, he expressed compassion and sympathy for her.
To date, 182 people nationwide have been exonerated with DNA testing. The Innocence Project represented many of them, just as we represented Alan Newton. Because we only take cases where DNA can yield conclusive proof of innocence, many of our clients are men who were wrongly convicted of sexual assault.
Ninety percent of the 182 exonerations involved sexual assault (sometimes in combination with murder and other crimes). While the criminal justice system began using DNA testing two decades ago to help identify the guilty and exonerate the innocent, it has become more prevalent and more sophisticated in recent years.
Since our clients are primarily men convicted of heinous crimes against women, some people wonder whether our work serves the interests of rape survivors and women generally. I strongly believe that it does in very specific, individual ways — and also more broadly and profoundly.
When the wrong man is convicted of assaulting a woman, nobody sees justice. The true perpetrator can remain at large, unpunished for a horrible crime and able to rape again. In one-third of the 182 DNA exonerations, we haven't just proved someone's innocence; the DNA has been used to help identify the true perpetrator.
As Alan Newton recognized earlier this month, wrongful convictions — once they're finally overturned — reopen crime victims' wounds and prevent them from moving forward, often decades after a crime. Once DNA proves that the wrong man was convicted, rape survivors are often brought right back to the night of the crime. Many are left questioning how they identified the wrong man and wondering whether they will have to endure another trial, years later. The pain survivors experience at such times could be avoided if wrongful convictions were prevented in the first place.
Beyond the substantial consequences for the wrongly accused and individual rape survivors, wrongful convictions concern many of us because people of color and poor people are disproportionately targeted by our criminal justice system. That's troubling enough, but when it's done in the name of protecting the public and punishing violence against women, we cannot stand by.
Among the 182 exoneration cases, where the race of wrongly convicted people is known, nearly 75 percent are men of color. No two cases are alike, but in many of them, police focused on an African American man immediately and ignored information that might have led to other suspects. In some of them, police coerced confessions, prosecutors concealed evidence and defense attorneys for poor defendants failed to challenge faulty evidence and law enforcement tactics.
A number of rape survivors and crime victims work with the Innocence Project to remedy the deeply embedded problems in our criminal justice system that cause wrongful convictions in the first place. They are all incredibly strong, powerful and amazing women. A particularly inspiring partner in our work is Christy Sheppard of Oklahoma.
Her cousin, Debra Sue Carter, was brutally raped and murdered in 1982. Six years later, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were convicted; Fritz was sentenced to life in prison, while Williamson received the death penalty and came within five days of being executed. In 1999, both men were exonerated with DNA testing, which indicated that the state's main witness against them was actually the perpetrator.
In the years since, Christy Sheppard has pressed for state legislation to create an Innocence Commission that would study wrongful convictions in the state and identify steps to avoid future wrongful convictions. She says this advocacy is her way of fighting for real justice for her cousin and for countless other women.
In very different ways, Christy Sheppard and Alan Newton remind us why working to free the wrongly convicted and prevent wrongful convictions is critical for everyone involved. They show us not just what's at stake, but that all of us can — and must — do our part to correct injustice.
Maddy deLone is executive director of The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York.