By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday reduced to $12 million from $18 million the maximum that New York City must pay a man who spent more than two decades in prison before being cleared of a rape he did not commit.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan agreed with the city that the $18 million jury award in October 2010 to Alan Newton "shocks the judicial conscience." She said Newton may accept the lesser award or seek a new trial on damages.
"Wrongful convictions are a serious and intolerable aspect of the criminal justice system," Scheindlin wrote in a 46-page decision. "However, in this instance, the principles of justice require a reduction of the damages that were awarded."
Newton, 54, had been convicted in 1985 of rape, robbery and assault over a Bronx attack the year before, largely based on eyewitness testimony.
He later pressed the city to find the victim's rape kit, which was not offered at trial, after DNA testing had become more reliable, but the city took more than a decade before locating it in a Queens warehouse.
After DNA taken from the victim did not match, Newton was released from prison in July 2006. He then sued the city over the 12 extra years he spent incarcerated because of the delay in finding the rape kit.
Scheindlin said comparable cases suggested that a $1 million per year award was the "upper boundary" of what was reasonable, making the jury's $1.5 million per year award "excessive."
The judge had in May 2011 set aside the $18 million award, finding the city's conduct at most negligent, but a federal appeals court revived it in February 2015.
John Schutty, a lawyer for Newton, said Scheindlin abused her "very limited discretion" to reduce the $1.5 million annual award, given that many juries have awarded that sum or more in similar cases. He said his client will evaluate his options.
Lawyers for the city in January said other cases suggested that a $175,000 to $288,000 per year award might be appropriate.
Arthur Larkin, senior counsel for the city, in a statement called Newton's case a "tragic case in which mistakes were made in the storage, management and tracking of evidence."
Newton is now a research associate with The City University of New York Black Male Initiative, according to the program's website.
The case is Newton v. City of New York et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 07-06211.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown and Grant McCool)