March 5, 2021 By Allie Griffin
Three Queens men who were wrongfully convicted in a 1996 double homicide returned home to their families today after nearly a quarter century behind bars.
A Queens Supreme Court judge vacated the convictions of George Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt Friday in the murders of an Astoria business owner and off-duty police officer on Dec. 21, 1996.
Bell, Johnson and Bolt were convicted of killing Ira “Mike” Epstein and NYPD Officer Charles Davis during a botched robbery of Epstein’s check cashing business on Astoria Boulevard. Davis was off-duty, working as a security guard for Epstein’s store at the time when both men were fatally shot.
However, defense teams for the three men found that key evidence in the case was withheld by prosecutors during the initial court proceedings which could have proven their innocence.
The defense lawyers filed a joint motion with the Queens District Attorney to vacate all three men’s convictions after learning that the case prosecutors had wrongfully withheld the documents in the ’90s.
Judge Joseph Zayas ruled in their favor – stating that the Queens District Attorney’s Office and case prosecutors in the 1990s had deliberately withheld information — and released the three men on their own recognizance.
Most notably, the prosecutors at the time failed to hand over documents indicating that a member of a gang known as “Speedstick” had implicated himself and other gang members in the fatal shooting at Epstein’s check cashing store.
“The district attorney’s office deliberately withheld from the defense credible information of third-party guilt that is evidence that others may have committed these crimes,” Zayas said at the hearing.
They also withheld the mental health records of a key witness who implicated the men and testified against two of them. The records showed that the witness had a recent history of hallucinations at the time.
- The youngest of the men, Bell, was just 19-years-old at the time of his arrest. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty in his case, but a jury instead sentenced him to life in prison without the chance of parole.
Zayas said the prosecutors’ egregious actions shocked him and the case has caused him many sleepless nights.
“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 of a capital case in which the former district attorney was seeking the death penalty of a 19-year-old man,” he said. “And because of that Constitutional violation, three men have been wrongly imprisoned for a quarter of a century.”
Bell, now 45, has spent most of his life in prison. He said he was thankful that his parents are still alive today to see him freed.
“Today God is going to give me my life back as what I was born to be, a free man in society…,” Bell said at the hearing. “Sometimes, Your Honor, God might be late, but today, sir, he’s right on time.”
Johnson, who was 21-years-old at the time of his arrest, admitted that he grew angry at the justice system, but used that anger to fuel his fight to prove his innocence.
“24 years ago, when officers first arrested me, my statement and my innocence never wavered, but my anger came about when I had thoughts of my sister, who was nine years old at the time, and her cries still ring in my mind,” he said, tearing up. “Hearing that actually triggered a lot of anger in my soul is what actually propelled me to fight stronger just to prove my innocence.”
Johnson is now 46 years old and Bolt, who was then a 35-year-old husband and father of four, is now nearly 60 years old.
“My children have been my source of hope through all of this, and I will spend the rest of my life trying to make up for the time I lost with them,” Bolt said in a statement.
The three men thanked their attorneys — who all worked pro-bono — as well as the Queens District Attorney and Judge Zayas.
The Queen District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) picked up the case after its formation last year. The CIU attorneys investigated the case for 11 months months and interviewed more than 30 witnesses.
The CIU filed the joint motion to vacate the three men’s convictions based on the prosecutors’ failure to disclose exculpatory evidence.
However, the men’s defense teams also argue that the totality of evidence proves that all three are innocent. They said there is no physical evidence linking any of the men to the case and that officers coerced false confessions.
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz has 90 days to determine whether the convictions should be vacated also on the grounds of actual innocence.
- “As the chief law enforcement officer of Queens County, I cannot stand behind these convictions in light of the Brady violations that my Conviction Integrity Unit identified,” Katz said. “However, there is at this time insufficient evidence of actual innocence and therefore we are taking this opportunity to re-evaluate and examine the evidence.”
The men’s attorney said the would continue to fight until they are proven innocent.
“While we are grateful and relieved that, after being imprisoned for more than 24 years for a crime they did not commit, these three men can finally walk out of prison today, there is more work to do over the next 90 days to ensure the indictments against these men are dismissed and that their innocence is proclaimed,” said Scott Stevenson, Senior Vice President at Aon plc and attorney for Bell.
Representatives for Bell, Bolt and Johnson have set up a gofundme page to help support them in their reintroduction to society.