On Friday, March 5, 2021, after 24 years in prison, the Hon. Judge Joseph A. Zayas of the Queens County Supreme Court overturned the 1996 convictions of Gary Johnson, 46; George Bell, 44; and Rohan Bolt, 59. The three men were finally released from Green Haven Correctional Facility in upstate New York to waiting family, friends, and media coverage. Zayas found that the three men’s convictions were based off of coercive interrogations, shoddy police work, racism, and pressure from then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to arrest and convict them rather than based on justice. Upon his release, The New York Times reports that Bolt held two of his grandchildren’s hands for the first time and said, “We finally made it.”
The three men were serving sentences of 50 years to life for the shooting deaths of off-duty police officer Charles Davis and shop owner Ira Epstein at a check-cashing store in East Elmhurst, Queens, on Dec. 21, 1996. As the Times explains, Johnson, Bell, and Bolt’s convictions were thrown out in no small part due to how corrupt and clearly morally bankrupt the process had been from top to bottom. “Prosecutors never turned over police reports showing that investigators had linked the killings to other men, the members of a local robbery ring. And five witness accounts — never seen by defense lawyers — contradicted the men’s confessions, which were wrong on key details of the crime, and which lawyers say were coerced.” This means not only was the entire process of investigating and getting confessions out of the men flawed, but that both law enforcement and prosecutors knew full well there was ample evidence other people had committed this crime, and they allowed those people to go free in order to put three innocent men away for life.
During his ruling, Zayas 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.”
Speaking via video conference, Zayas told the three men that he was “vacating your convictions. I’m releasing you.” Zayas went on to say that “the miscarriage of justice in your cases was egregious and it took way too long to discover the truth.” Defense attorney Mitchell Dinnerstein told reporters the pressure to have results—a pressure that was politically motivated—led to this railroading of injustice. “The crime occurred a few days before Christmas, and Giuliani said ‘We’re going to solve this case by Christmas.’” After decades of work done by the families of the innocent men and their attorneys, the Queens district attorney’s office finally looked into the case and discovered how much evidence had been purposefully withheld from the defense lawyers in the 1996 case. Everything from the fact that the single eyewitness who placed the three men at the crime being someone who “suffered from hallucinations” to the numerous witnesses who told the police another group of men, referred to as a crew of robbers known as “Speedstick,” were responsible for the murders.
George Bell read a statement from prison via video before his release, saying: “After I was convicted for capital murder, I couldn’t fathom or wrap my mind around how God would allow the justice system I believed in to fail me in such a tragic fashion.” Bell was 19 years old and Johnson was 22 at the time of their arrest. After being “subject to coercive interrogations,” both men confessed. But these confessions “bear all the hallmarks of the false confessions that resulted in wrongful convictions in the past.” This includes important incongruities in their statements and key facts that they recall incorrectly. This happens during false confessions because the law enforcement officers who are interrogating the suspects don’t have all of the facts finalized. As on-the-scene investigations are underway, autopsies are being conducted, and ballistics are being done while they are interrogating, the officers will feed the victims of these false confessions with false facts. Bolt, who was older with two young children, always maintained his innocence, even addressing the widows of the men during his sentencing in the courtroom to tell them: “I know one day God will show them the truth, that Rohan Bolt did not have nothing to do with it.”
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz is currently the lead prosecutor at the Queens' Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU). According to the Queens Eagle, Katz’s CIU has recently helped overturn seven cases, including those of Bell, Johnson, and Bolt. Katz says her office will continue to review the case as she attempts to play both sides of the political story here.
“I cannot stand behind these convictions,” Ms. Katz said in a statement on Friday. “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.”
On the one hand, it’s clear that a tragedy of justice took place here and there are ramifications for that. There are people like Brad Leventhal, one of the prosecutors on the original case who is now the head of the Homicide Trial Bureau in Queens County; and Charles Testagrossa, former prosecutor in the Queens district attorney’s office who Katz says did not act maliciously in this case—though the vacating of the charges says otherwise. As if on cue (and missing the point entirely), president of the New York City Police Benevolent Association Patrick Lynch released an angry statement saying: “There is absolutely no reason that these convicted cop-killers should be put back on the street,” and that the family of the late Charles Davis is “devastated by the possibility that nobody will be held accountable for his murder.”
But what is lost here is that it is our justice system that should be yelled at, not the three men who were wrongfully convicted of a murder and who have lost decades of their lives to racism, political pressure, and opportunism. While Rudy Giuliani was holding Christmas Day press conferences to promote the police department’s arrest of the killers of Davis and Epstein, it seems very likely that this pressure to score political points—mixed with the general white supremacist system, corruption, and racism as usual—was allowing real murderers to go free.
One of several prosecutors in all three cases, Brad A. Leventhal, was among them. Court records show a three-judge appeals panel overturned a conviction in one of Mr. Leventhal’s attempted murder cases, ordering a new trial in 2006 based on “repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct” during the cross-examination of a witness and closing arguments.
Katz’s attempts at rectifying the situation has been political and lacking. According to the the three men’s lawyers, after reviewing the evidence Katz’s office and the CIU took almost a year to finally get around to letting these men out of prison.
“This should have been done a year ago. What were they doing that caused them to drag their feet?” said Mitchell Dinnerstein, one of Mr. Bell’s trial lawyers. He added that he believed the office had taken its position because it was “trying to protect” the prosecutors involved, one of whom still works there.
The math being done by Katz’s office will not stop subsequent civil lawsuits against the state of New York. There will be maneuvers behind the scenes to cut plea deals and promises of no further attempts to try the men, and maybe that will be enough for men who have missed their children’s childhoods and just want to begin their lives again. The system is broken and while people fret about “cancel culture” and people revisiting authors like Dr. Seuss and looking at them in a new light, there are very real people in very real positions of power who should have been canceled a long time ago, if not imprisoned for their repeated violations of American citizen’s rights and liberties.