By Christinia Asquith
Wrongly imprisoned, Alan Newton advises students in CUNY’s Black Male Initiative. So why is a civil rights group trying to stop him?
Exhaling a long plume of cold January air, Alan Newton throws open the door of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and heads towards his first class of the spring semester. While waiting for the professor to arrive, Newton slips into a desk. He knows something about waiting.
Waiting for justice.
Before he came to Medgar Evers, Newton spent 22 years locked up in 12 different New York state prisons for a crime he didn’t commit. Most of his classmates weren’t born when he stepped into his first prison cell. His ordeal began when a White woman who had been raped in the Bronx mistakenly identified the 22-year-old in a photo lineup.
Last summer, thanks to DNA testing and Newton’s persistent lobbying, he was exonerated and released in the same Bronx jurisdiction where he had been convicted. The judge who reviewed the case didn’t apologize, which “really didn’t matter,” Newton says. He learned long ago how to fight off bitterness and disappointment.
“When I first got in, I was in shock. I was bitter, angry and missing my family,” he says gently, sitting in the library at Medgar Evers. One year into his sentence, his mother passed away. “I realized that if I kept it in, I wouldn’t grow. I had to channel that.”
Coming out of prison after two decades is a challenge; and it is an even greater struggle for those wrongly incarcerated — most of whom are Black. In the past year, DNA testing has freed eight other prisoners in New York state alone. But the state offers no compensation for wrongly imprisoned inmates, and there are no job training programs or housing services in place, as there are for parolees. The struggle to rebuild a life after prison is one shouldered disproportionately by minorities: In 2003, Blacks made up 15 percent of the population of New York state, and 54 percent of the prison population, according to Human Rights Watch.
After spending half of his life behind bars, Newton found himself a free man, but with no job, no work experience, no savings and a lot of catching up to do. He didn’t just miss the rise of the Internet. He missed the birth of the personal computer. The last time he had a job, people played records, not CDs.
But over the past six months, Newton has put his life back together. He has a scholarship to Medgar Evers College and is pursuing a degree in business; and the school has hired him as a counselor for its new initiative, the Male Development and Empowerment Center, where he uses his story to encourage other young men to stay in school.
Ironically, after overcoming a racially unjust system that stole more than two decades of his life, Newton is part of a program now being charged with being discriminatory because it is specifically aimed at Black men.
Last year, a New York civil rights group made that claim in a complaint filed with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. The group wants to stop the expansion of the program to other colleges in the City University of New York system. If they are victorious, it could end MDEC, put Newton out of a job and leave countless other Black men without the support systems that research shows they need and benefit from.
“The lawsuit, if you scratch beneath the surface, has little to do with our campus; it’s a nice public relations headline for them,” says Rodney Fuller, the center’s executive director. “Women are entering college in greater numbers across the board and they want to know: Who are we going to marry? So, most women in New York City wouldn’t mind seeing more college educated men, no matter what race they are.”
MDEC’s opponents come from a surprising source. Led by Black attorney and civil rights activist Michael Meyers, the New York Civil Rights Coalition has on its board noted Black scholar Orlando Patterson and award-winning journalist Juan Williams, and states its aim is “to encourage people and institutions to take affirmative steps to achieve an integrated society.”
“The Medgar Evers program is Afrocentric, racial nonsense,” says Meyers. “It is Black male chauvinism and a stereotyping that all Black males are at risk. Anytime you start to treat Blacks separately simply because of their skin color or because of their sex, that is stereotyping; that is separatism, which the law does not permit.”
And yet Newton might ask: Where was the civil rights lawsuit when he, and countless other Black men like him, were wrongfully convicted?
Survival of the Fittest
Now 45 years old, Newton still recalls the shock of the prison bars clanging shut behind him. Depression slowly sunk in.
He grew up struggling financially, but came from a supportive family and had been trying to make something of his life. Newton graduated from the Bronx’s Dewitt Clinton High School in 1979 and worked for a few years at a local bank and at a telephone company in the World Trade Center.
Then one day, the police knocked on his door. His subsequent descent into the abyss of the justice system was not only bad luck, he says, but the result of a racist, sloppy system that is tilted against the poor, the Black and the defenseless.
The victim was leaving a convenience store on a summer night in 1984 when she was grabbed, taken to an abandoned building and raped, according to court documents. Later on, she identified Newton from a book of photos in police files. The convenience store clerk also identified the photo of Newton, although he could not point him out later in court.
Newton feels the photo should never have been in the book of mug shots. It was the result of a misdemeanor assault charge he’d received after a fight at a party five years earlier. Such a charge would lead to a slap on the wrist for most White suburban youth, he says.
At the rape trial, Newton says his court-appointed defense attorney did him no favors. The victim admitted to consuming 12 beers and taking medication the night she was raped, but the defense attorney couldn’t convince the jury that her ability to recall her attacker was impaired. Newton’s fiancée and her daughter were prepared to support his alibi that he was at home with them, but the attorney failed to prepare them for the witness stand. As a result, their testimony was quickly shredded by the prosecution.
“There were a lot of things wrong with my case that a competent attorney would have seen right away,” Newton says.
His current lawyer, Vanessa Potkin of The Innocence Project, agrees that race and poverty play a huge part in wrongful convictions. Since 1992, The Innocence Project has been using DNA to reexamine evidence, and has secured the release of 192 wrongly convicted prisoners — 109 of whom were Black, and 14 of whom had spent time on death row. She says misidentification most commonly occurs when the victim is White and the defendant is Black. Juries also tend to give more credibility to testimony by Whites, Potkin says. And police attitudes are also influenced by race. “They think, ‘well if he didn’t do that, he probably did something else,’” she says.
Eleven months after he was arrested, Newton was convicted and sent away for 40 years to an 8 foot by 10 foot cell. Prison was “rough, dirty, nasty, survival of the fittest,” he says. “You got to always be aware of what’s going on, and that’s stressful. If a distraction happens, they’re locking the doors, and when the riot squad comes in, they look at everyone involved and you get your head busted in.”
After Newton’s mom passed away — “of a broken heart,” he says — Newton struggled to maintain hope. He enrolled in the Duchess County Community College and earned his associate degree from prison. But in 1994, Congress effectively abolished all federally financed prisoner education programs. Newton’s program was cancelled.
Newton has been up for parole three times, and he believes he could have been released earlier had he agreed to admit to the rape and enroll in a sex offender’s class. He refused. Instead, he filed motions to have his case reviewed, especially as DNA testing emerged in the early 1990s. But the police claimed several times that the rape kit from his case was lost or destroyed in a fire. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence in criminal cases are kept in the New York Police Department’s Pearson Place warehouse, but there is no computerized database.
Newton’s case didn’t reach Potkin’s desk at The Innocence Project until 2004. She was skeptical at first if there was anything she could do because Newton had already fought for so long without success. Nearly half of her cases in New York City go nowhere because of “lost evidence,” she says. By comparison, evidence is lost in only one-third of cases nationwide.
Potkin filed a final request for the rape kit. She says she expected the same result, but wanted to close the case with a good conscience. The request to the Bronx police department and district attorney’s office used the same barrel and receipt number that Newton had used on all his previous requests.
“Lo and behold, they found the kit,” Potkin says. They sent it away for DNA testing, and there was no match. Within six months, Newton was a free man.
At a press conference after his highly publicized release, Newton offered sympathy for the rape victim, who has since passed away. His charisma, empathy and optimism caught the eye of Noel Hankin, of Moët Hennessy, who sits on the board of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund. They offered Newton a scholarship to Medgar Evers and, in September 2006, he fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a college student.
“Affected, yes. You’ve got to be affected. But to not be bitter says something about his character and the way he was raised,” says
Dr. Edison O. Jackson, president of Medgar Evers. “He didn’t wallow in his misery. He got his education, and that says something about who he is.”
Jackson knows something about overcoming the odds. When he took the helm of the predominately Black college, only one in five students were men. Few graduated on time. So he set about building the Male Development and Empowerment Center, where Newton counsels young men on the verge of dropping out and helps those with prison records.
MDEC is also pioneering research into strategies and practices that successfully keep men in school. The center offers financial seminars intended to improve the economic power of Black and Hispanic men, workshops on relationships, efforts to improve male-to-male communication and employment training.
“We’re talking about building a community,” Jackson says. “How could we have a strong African-American community that is so unbalanced? So, I decided to stop lamenting about it. I’m a president. I can make it happen.”
Since 2001, when the program was established, full-time male enrollment has increased by 33 percent, according to Medgar Evers officials. The program’s success has prompted the creation of a “Black Male Initiative” throughout the CUNY system, with a budget of $3.5 million for 2006 and 2007. The CUNY system has 11 four-year colleges and several community colleges and graduate schools. Medgar Evers is about 96 percent Black, while the system overall is 26 percent Black.
Prison, unemployment, fatherhood, bills — these are all specific obstacles that Black men cite in their struggle to stay in school, Jackson says. An earlier study on Black men in college by the University System of Georgia found that the problem has roots in elementary school, when young Black boys are often guided into special education, reprimanded and discouraged from pursuing higher education. Increasingly, other colleges have created working groups to improve the retention rates of Black and Hispanic men. “Let’s turn this situation around,” Jackson says.
But these efforts may come to an end if Meyers’ New York Civil Rights Coalition has its way. The group, which formed in 1986 after race riots in Queens, has also taken a stand against ethnic dormitories and minority colleges. Myers is a self-described liberal who supports affirmative action, but feels that any separatism is racist, even if it purports to benefit Blacks.
“What you can not do is say ‘because they are Black males they need extra support.’ That’s stereotyping based on race,” he says. “Have high expectations, and they will excel. Medgar Evers is the exact opposite. It says, ‘have low expectations for minority students and treat them differently because, you know, they come from a bad environment and we should track them and treat them
like guinea pigs.’”
But few at MDEC feel they hold low standards for their students. Newton depends on the income from his counseling job; and Fuller says that his program is open to men of all races, and that women benefit, too. In the next few weeks, his center will offer seminars to groups, churches and schools on effective strategies. There will also be a reading day, where 50 Black men will read to Black children.
“I go by what I see every day, which is increased enrollment, retention and graduation of men on our campus” Fuller says.
Jackson teaches a freshman course designed to introduce Black men to college. He says it’s his way of “staying in touch.” Jackson’s determination stretches back to his rural upbringing as one of 12 children in the segregated South. His father was a farmer, and taught his son “to always own something.” Jackson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Howard University, a doctorate from Rutgers University and joined the faculty at Federal City College in Washington, D.C. He then became dean of student affairs at Essex Community College in New Jersey at the age of 26. From there, he worked his way up to Medgar Evers, where he is hailed for putting the small local college on the map.
Jackson and Newton share a similar up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. “I couldn’t expect anyone to carry my torch,” Newton says. “When you go to people for help, you have to show them what you are doing for yourself before they help you.”
Newton’s counseling experience thus far has led him to conclude that the biggest obstacle Black male students face in college is lack of resources and distractions. “In prison, there was nothing to do but study.” But it’s hard to imagine anything stopping him now.
“I use myself as an example of how you can overcome anything,” Newton says. “They may have a criminal conviction or low SAT scores, but I encourage them and tell them, ‘School will encourage your growth.’ I say, ‘Enjoy school, and do it while you’re young.’”
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