A New York judge has overturned convictions for three men who have been in prison for more than two decades after they were sentenced for the 1996 murders of a police officer and the owner of a business in New York City.
George Bell, Rohan Bolt and Gary Johnson were each sentenced in the slayings of NYPD Officer Charles Davis and a businessman named Ira Epstein just before Christmas in 1996. Bell was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, while the other two men were given sentences of 50 years to life, the New York Post reported.
Friday, after prosecutors in the 1997 trial were accused of withholding potentially exculpatory evidence, a judge in Queens vacated the convictions.
That evidence reportedly included withholding a confession from an area gang member about the murders, which occurred during a botched robbery of Epstein’s Queens check-cashing business. Another piece of information allegedly withheld was that a witness against the men, who were tried separately, was mentally ill and experienced hallucinations.
The Post reported that Bell and Johnson did each confess to the murders, but those confessions were reported to have been given while the men were under duress.
Bell, 19 at the time, was identified as the shooter. He had worked in retail at the time of the slayings with Johnson, who was then 22. Neither man had ever met Bolt, and neither had a criminal record, according to the Post’s reporting. Bolt at the time was a 35-year-old restaurateur.
The Queens Conviction Integrity Unit reportedly took a second look at the case and found that the prosecution suppressed the evidence that could have shown the men were innocent. Defense attorneys were reportedly denied information that another man who was described as a marijuana dealer had confessed to slaying Epstein and Davis. Davis was working as Epstein’s security guard when the Queen’s business was robbed and both men were murdered.
Queens Supreme Court Justice Joseph Zayas ordered the men freed and their convictions vacated Friday and accused the state of wrongdoing.
“The prosecution’s team sought ways to suppress and hide evidence, hide the truth,” Zayas said in court. “It astounds me and shocks my conscience that even in 1997, that constitutional violations of this magnitude can happen in any prosecution much less the prosecution in a capital case in which the former district attorney was seeking the death penalty of a 19-year-old man.”
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz will have 90 days to announce whether her office intends to pursue another trial against Bell, Bolt and Johnson. Katz also has the option of consenting that the convictions were rightfully vacated via evidentiary standards and letting the case go. The DA had said she would take time to make a decision on how to proceed with bringing justice to those who killed Epstein and Davis.
“There is at this time insufficient evidence of actual innocence, and therefore we are taking this opportunity to reevaluate and examine the evidence,” Katz said in a statement, according to the New York Daily News.
Bell, now 44, addressed the court virtually on Friday from the Green Haven Correctional Facility in upstate New York, the Post reported.
“For the past two decades and a half, I rose each day to view the cell bars … and would say to myself, ‘Today is the day I will find the key, today is the day I am going home,’” he said. “I never gave up on my dream.”
Bolt, now 59, was much less optimistic when speaking about his upcoming release from prison after spending 26 years locked up.
“I actually don’t know where to begin because at this moment, I do feel extremely joyful, but at the same time, a lot of anger in my soul,” he said.
Johnson did not comment on his vacated conviction.
Pat Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, said in a statement to the Daily News that he wants the men to face another trial, and to remain behind bars while Katz’ office reviews the case.
“There is absolutely no reason that these convicted cop-killers should be put back on the street,” said Lynch. “The family of hero P.O. Charles Davis is devastated by the possibility that nobody will be held accountable for his murder.”
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