The weekend before Christmas 1996, a shopkeeper was opening his store in Queens (southeastern New York), with a policeman working as a security guard in his spare time, when the two were ambushed by a group of men. and shot.
The case sparked a fierce hunt and, within days, three men were arrested. They were convicted of murder, in separate trials, to 50-year sentences and life imprisonment.
More than 20 years later, the business collapsed.
On Friday (5), a state judge quashed the convictions of the three and warned the prosecution for withholding evidence that would have cast serious doubts on their guilt.
Prosecutors never gave police reports that investigators linked the killings to other men, members of a gang that was engaged in theft. And the testimonies of five witnesses – who were not seen by defense lawyers – denied the confessions of the men, who were wrong about important details of the crime and who, according to the lawyers, were forced to stand by. confess.
The three – Gary Johnson, 46; George Bell, 44; and Rohan Bolt, 59 – were released from jail this Friday afternoon and cried as they hugged their families. “We finally made it,” Bolt shouted, holding the hands of two of his grandchildren for the first time.
“The district attorney’s office deliberately denied the defense credible information about the guilt of others,” Judge Joseph Zayas told the three men, who virtually attended the session. He said the prosecution had “completely abdicated its truth-seeking role in these cases” and suggested that the reason may be that prosecutors knew the evidence would reduce the chances of convicting them.
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz has defended overturning the convictions due to new evidence. But she did not go so far as to say that the accused are innocent. His office plans to review the case for 90 days before deciding to try it again.
“I cannot support these condemnations,” Katz said in a statement Friday. “However, at the moment there is not enough evidence of true innocence, and therefore we take this opportunity to reassess and review the evidence.”
A unit created by Katz to investigate possible errors in judgment has found no intentional wrongdoing on the part of prosecutors. Zayas disagreed on Friday, saying he was “puzzled” by the cabinet’s position and that prosecutors had concealed evidence and distorted the facts.
Lawyers also said it took months for Katz’s office to agree to the men’s release, even after the evidence was reviewed. In their court document, they said Katz’s position denies convicts “the full justice they deserve” after most of the original evidence against them collapsed.
“It should have been done a year ago. Why did they take so long?” Said Mitchell Dinnerstein, one of George Bell’s attorneys. He added that in his opinion the cabinet took this position because it was “trying to protect” the prosecutors involved, one of whom is still working there.
But recently uncovered documents – police reports, files and notes – shed new light on the case.
Police report that members of a group known as Speedstick have been linked to the murders. Two members of the pack had told detectives that another member had suggested he was involved.
Witnesses to another shooting a few months later – with the participation of one of the group’s leaders – described several striking similarities to the 1996 crime. Investigators from both cases also met to discuss them.
But prosecutors have repeatedly said there is no record linking the crimes to sabotaged attempts to list them at trial. Lawyers say the evidence has been suppressed.
“In the history of New York State, this is one of the most abusive violations of an individual’s constitutional rights, as I can imagine,” said Marc Wolinsky, attorney for Bell.
The case represents the first test of Katz’s handling of the prosecution’s allegations of misconduct. Some defense attorneys and former prosecutors say these discrepancies have remained pristine for 27 years under Prosecutor Richard Brown, who died in 2019. Former incumbent leaders have defended him and said those concerns come first when they arise. appeared.
After taking office early last year, Katz set up a unit to look at possible conviction errors, something his predecessor long refused to do. The unit’s investigations led to the release of two men in prison in different murder cases last year after witnesses recanted or new DNA tests questioned their guilt.
The unit took on the cases of the three convicted of the 1996 death last March, at the request of defense lawyers, and spent months digging up new documents. She concluded that there was no proof of innocence and lawyers for the three said talks about the men’s release began in late November. They accused Katz of taking too long to act, even after the problems in the case became evident.
The problems in the case are a clear example of behavior that some lawyers say has been overlooked in the Queens District Attorney’s Office. Judges ruled that prosecutors had done wrong in at least 117 cases between 1985 and 2017; a lawyer who reviewed the convictions concluded that prosecutors were rarely punished.
One of the many prosecutors in the three cases was Brad Leventhal. Legal records show that a three-magistrate appeals court overturned the conviction in one of Leventhal’s attempted homicide cases, ordering a new trial in 2006 on the basis of “repeated cases of procedural misconduct During the questioning of a witness and in closing arguments.
Leventhal, who now heads the prosecution’s homicide trials department, forwarded the comments to Jennifer Naiburg, the cabinet’s deputy prosecutor. Naiburg said Leventhal handled around 85 cases as a defense lawyer and prosecutor and, except in 2006, had not been sanctioned for misconduct and none of his convictions were overturned.
The Cabinet does not intend to review previous convictions of individual prosecutors, as the review unit determined that there was no intentional misconduct.
However, some of the police reports revealed had been used in other cases. And notes written by Charles Testagrossa, a former Queens prosecutor, suggested he was aware that a member of the Speedstick could have driven a van used in the killings at the check discount store.
Testagrossa, who now works in the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement Thursday (4) that he “revealed all the absolutist material” he was aware of, in this case and throughout his life. career. “I have always believed that all parties to a trial – the victims and their families, the accused and their families – deserve equality and justice,” he said.
During the trial of each accused, prosecutors used different evidence, including their first confession, eyewitness identification, the report of an informant from the prison and the testimony of a fourth man also accused of the murders. But no physical evidence has linked any of them to the crime, according to court documents.
“When this sad journey began, I was just 19. I was just a boy without a clear understanding of the law or my own rights,” Bell said during Friday’s hearing. “Thank you for giving me another chance in life.”