George Bell, Gary Johnson, and Rohan Bolt spent nearly 25 years in prison on a 50-year sentence and were released from the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville on March 5 after a Queens judge tossed the convictions, citing prosecutorial misconduct.
"I'm trying so hard to hold in my tears right now," Bell said Friday.
The judge who threw out the convictions, Joseph Zayas, apologized to the three men, calling what happened in their case a "miscarriage of justice" with "egregious violations."
"We never gave up," Bolt said. "And today, see, we are walking here as free men. I'm thankful for everything."
Ira "Mike" Epstein and off-duty NYPD Police Officer Charles Davis, who was providing private security at the time, were killed on December 22, 1996, during a botched robbery at Epstein's business.
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"Within a few months of our clients having been arrested, after a five day investigation on a double homicide and no forensics, within days, there was evidence that someone else committed this crime," defense attorney Rita Dave said. "And yet all the police reports and all the documents generated in that investigation were withheld from our clients."
The three men proclaimed their innocence throughout the trial and over the decades since, even though then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani pushed for the death penalty and then-District Attorney Richard Brown sought it.
"The job of the district attorney is to ensure that justice is dispensed fairly, and the Conviction Integrity Unit exists to safeguard the process," Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said. "Nearly 25 years ago, two families lost their loved ones to senseless violence and in the aftermath, three men were improperly convicted of their murders. The case now goes to our Cold Case Unit."
Katz said she agreed to vacate the convictions because prosecutors failed to disclose police reports and information about key witnesses, including one who suffered hallucinations and an apparent confession from a local drug dealer who implicated himself.
"It's easy to be bitter," Bell said Friday. "For me, coming out of here, holding on to anger. I'm upset, don't get it twisted. I'm upset, of course I'm angry. I'm angry for what they did to my family, what we went through. But you cannot go through life holding onto that, because how can you move forward if you're holding on to something that going to cause resentment? This right here is a blessing. This is not resentment."
Under the supervision of Executive Assistant District Attorney Pishoy Yacoub, who has been in charge of the Queens DA's Supreme Court Trial Division and Legal Training since his appointment in January 2020, the three-month investigation included review of all relevant documentary evidence, interviews with more than 60 witnesses, a review of hundreds of hours of electronic evidence, forensic testing of DNA evidence and ballistics evidence, and the forensic re-testing of fingerprint evidence.
"In addition, we are moving to amend the grounds on which the convictions were overturned to include 'newly discovered evidence which, if available at the time of trial, would more likely than not have led to a verdict more favorable to the defendants,'" Katz said. "A fair and accurate trial depends on all parties knowing all of the evidence so that the jury can make an informed decision about the guilt or innocence of a defendant."
Katz said her office has taken crucial steps to make certain justice is served in every case, including:
--Designing a computer program that ensures coordination and communication between prosecutors about potentially related cases
--Creating and implementing enhanced prosecutor training programs to improve case assessment and management
--Creating and implementing policies and procedures to assist prosecutors in complying with new discovery reform laws that went into effect in January of 2020.
"There can be no true justice, in Queens County or anywhere, unless we hold ourselves to the highest standards facilitating the process by which justice is sought," she said. "Our commitment to this effort continues."
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