THE BRONX — A man who spent 21 years behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of rape, robbery and assault during the 1980s hopes a bill currently making its way through Albany could help others avoid the same fate.
Al Newton, 54, who was exonerated and freed in 2006, is advocating for a bill that would force investigators to conduct a "blind administration" of photo lineups, meaning the officer overseeing the procedure would not know who the suspect is or where he or she is in the lineup.
"It prevents the officer from intentionally or unintentionally providing hints or cues to the eyewitness to kind of coach them into making a selection," said Nick Moroni, spokesman for The Innocence Project.
The bill would also require police departments to videotape interrogations for people suspected of class A-1 felonies.
Bills similar to this one have come up before, but Innocence Project officials believe this current version has a much better chance of becoming law based on the amount of DNA exonerations New York has seen that stemmed from cases where the suspect was either misidentified or falsely confessed to the crime, according to Moroni.
"Versions of this bill have been introduced for about a decade," he said.
"We feel very strongly that it has a real great shot at passing this coming session. There have been a series of exonerations that have come to light that have basically proven the need for this."
Newton, who said he had gone to the movies in Brooklyn with his fiancée and her daughter on the night of the attack, believes that a "blind" line up could have prevented him from being fingered for the crime.
His conviction was based solely on identifications by the victim and a convenience store clerk, according to court papers.
"I was engaged at the time this case happened," he said. "I was planning on getting married, and it tore that relationship apart."
Achieving his freedom was a very lengthy process, as Newton first requested post-conviction DNA testing in 1994, according to a motion to vacate his conviction.
"The hardest thing to do is to try to give it back, as they say, try to prove that you are fully innocent," he said. "Especially when you're innocent."
The real assailant has still not been found, according to The Innocence Project.
Although he supports the bill before the Legislature, Newton said he is not bitter about his own wrongful conviction, despite spending more than two decades behind bars because of it.
Rather, he tries to use his experience as a way to motivate more people to get involved in the criminal justice system.
"When you get that jury notice, don’t throw it away," he said. "Go, because we need to become stakeholders and do things that hold the system accountable."