Three Queens men convicted in the 1996 murders of an NYPD officer and an East Elmhurst check-cashing owner were freed Friday after spending more than two decades in prison when a judge found prosecutors had committed misconduct in their cases.
In vacating the convictions of George Bell, Rohan Bolt and Gary Johnson, Queens State Supreme Court Administrative Judge Joseph Zayas strongly criticized prosecutors who originally handled the case for committing "egregious violations" of the defendants' rights by deliberately withholding credible information that others may have committed the crimes.
"This exculpatory information had been in the prosecutors' possession and had in fact been documented by the lead prosecutor" in the Bell case, who Zayas identified as Charles A. Testagrossa during a virtual court session that Bell, Bolt and Johnson attended from Green Haven state prison.
Testagrossa, now an executive assistant district attorney in Nassau County, said in an email Friday: "I first learned of the reinvestigation of the George Bell prosecution in July of 2020 when I was contacted by the QCDA Conviction Integrity Unit to assist in their review of this case. I subsequently spoke with them on several occasions.
"Throughout my long career, I have always believed that all parties in a trial, the victims and their families and the defendants and their families deserve fairness and justice. Consequently, I have disclosed all exculpatory material of which I was aware, and I did so in this case."
Zayas said the prosecution abrogated its truth-seeking role in the case, perhaps because the evidence would undermine the prosecutors' theory of the case. Queens prosecutors have 90 days to decide if they want to retry the case. The Police Benevolent Association said in a statement that the case should be retried.
The case involved the slaying of NYPD Officer Charles Davis and store owner Ira "Mike" Epstein early on the morning of Dec. 21, 1996. Davis was working off duty as security for Epstein, and both were opening the check-cashing business when they were shot and killed, according to police. Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani was outraged by the killings, and police pushed to make a case, in the process getting evidence that a gang known as "Speed Stick" may have committed the crime.
However, detectives and prosecutors focused on the defendants, and Bell went to trial in 1999, with prosecutors seeking the death penalty. Bell was convicted of six counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Johnson went to trial next and, despite having an alibi witness, also was convicted. Bolt was tried last; he testified and was convicted, too. He and Johnson were sentenced to up to life in prison.
But defense attorneys working pro bono with the Legal Aid Society continued to dig. They found some prosecution witnesses had mental health issues, including one with a history of hallucinations, and police and prosecutors had evidence about the Speed Stick gang, Zayas said.
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, who had her conviction integrity unit review the case, said in court Friday that there were "inadvertent" failures to disclose exculpatory evidence.
In a statement, Katz she couldn’t allow the convictions to stand, but she insisted prosecutors at the time of the trial weren’t aware of the existence of the records.
Bell, now 45, told Zayas: "Today God is going to give my life back. That is what I want, to be a free man."
Bolt is 59, and Johnson, 46.