Three men who spent the past 24 years behind bars for the double slaying of an off-duty NYPD cop and Queens businessman were ordered freed from prison Friday — after a judge ruled they were wrongfully convicted.
The Queens District Attorney’s Office and defense lawyers for Rohan Bolt, 59, George Bell, 44, and Gary Johnson 46, had filed a joint motion to overturn the men’s convictions after concluding that previous prosecutors brazenly withheld evidence implicating another suspect.
“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,’” said Bell, who appeared virtually from upstate New York’s Green Haven Correctional Facility, alongside Bolt and Johnson, shortly before their murder convictions were vacated Friday. “I never gave up on my dream.”
Bell, then 19, and Johnson, then 22, both worked at Old Navy and had no criminal records when cops picked them up for the Dec. 21, 1996, killing of off-duty police Detective Charles Davis and businessman Ira “Mike” Epstein.
A small-time marijuana dealer had named Bell and Johnson as his cohorts in the botched-robbery-turned-murder — although no physical evidence ever connected the three convicted men to the brutal crime.
Charles worked as Epstein’s bodyguard at his check-cashing store on Astoria Boulevard, and both men were shot dead after they opened the shop that morning.
After a coercive interrogation in which Bell and Johnson falsely confessed, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani held a Christmas Day press conference announcing that the young men were the depraved killers, according to a motion filed by their lawyers.
Meanwhile, on Dec. 25, 1997, police arrested Bolt, who had never met Bell or Johnson, based on information from a crack addict with no connection to the crime. Bolt, then 35, was a married father of four who owned a local Caribbean restaurant.
The defendants were each tried separately and convicted of charges ranging from first-degree murder to burglary.
Bell, who was found guilty of being the shooter, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole after a jury declined to impose the death penalty, and Johnson and Bolt were sentenced to 50 years to life.
“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,” Bolt said at the hearing.
During a review of the case by the Queens Conviction Integrity Unit, it was determined that the trial prosecutors had withheld key evidence. The defense never learned that a member of a Queens armed robbery gang had confessed to the slayings and that the prosecution’s star witness against Johnson and Bolt suffered from hallucinations.
In vacating the convictions, Queens Supreme Court Justice Joseph Zayas delivered a scathing assessment of the flagrant misconduct.
“The prosecution’s team sought ways to suppress and hide evidence, hide the truth,” the judge said. “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.”
Current Queens DA Melinda Katz said her office would decide within 90 days whether to consent to a finding that the convictions should be vacated on the grounds of actual innocence and not pursue any further case against the men.
Attorneys Rita Dave, Marc Wolinsky and Scott Stevenson worked on the cases pro bono and uncovered the misconduct that spurred the CIU’s investigation.