Conference on Incarceration Puts a Spotlight on the Wrongfully Convicted

Alan Newton, a man who spent 22 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, shared his story of survival as part of a conference designed to help the wrongfully convicted and others caught up in the criminal justice system.


Beyond The Bars: From Reentry to Reconciliation was a conference held on Saturday at the Brooklyn Friends School in Downtown Brooklyn. One of the highlights of the conference was a panel on overturned convictions, and that is where Newton shared his story, and how The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to help overturning the convictions of innocent people, helped him.

“It takes projects like the Innocence Project to make the city become aware of wrongful conviction,” he said.

Newton personally knows because he was a victim. In 1984,  he was accused of raping a woman in Brooklyn, even though he says he had an alibi: He was at a movie at the time, and even had his ticket stubs. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison, but instead of giving up or admitting to guilt to try and get out earlier on parole, he spent his time behind bars trying to prove his innocence, and eventually got the help of the Innocence Project in getting his DNA tested, which led to his exoneration.

Newton is just one of many people who Karen Thompson, a staff attorney at Innocence Project, tries to help.

“We try to change laws for people who are wrongfully convicted. Since the Innocence Project began in 1993, over the 25 years we have freed 345 innocent people by using DNA testing,” she said.

Newton endured plenty of pain during his years behind bars.  His father, a former corrections officer, couldn’t bear to see him in prison so never came to visit: Both his parents died before Newton was released. At times, he doubted whether he would get out before his sentence was over, and even considered admitting guilt in order to get a better hearing at parole.

“When I was locked up I wanted to become part of a sex offenders class, because it would make it seem as though as if I am owning up to the action I committed,” he said. “However my family did not want me to be apart of that because they said I generally did not commit any wrong action.”

In the 10 years that Newton has been released, he became an active member in the Innocence Project and shares his compelling story with people around the nation. He also took the city to trial and won $8 million in damages. He plans on going to school to study law. He hopes to do more to free others: When he was in prison, he spent time in the law library trying to help inmates appeal their cases, and noted that some in prison have gotten unfairly long sentences or should be getting treatment for mental illness or drug addiction, not in the criminal justice system.

“I don’t like to just limit it to wrongful convictions, because it is bigger than wrongful convictions,” he said. “It’s the criminal justice system.”

Newton’s story was moving for those in the audience.

Larissa, a student who is passionate about theatre said his story left her frustrated but eager to learn about what she could do to help people like him.

“I am passionate about theatre programs that relate to rehabilitation, and involves programs that connects to prison or at risk environments to help people,” she said.