3 Black Men Released From New York Prison After 24 Years. Judge Determined That Prosecutors Withheld Evidence of Their Innocence

Illustration for article titled 3 Black Men Released From New York Prison After 24 Years. Judge Determined That Prosecutors Withheld Evidence of Their Innocence
Photo: MikeDotta (Shutterstock)

It seems like not more than a few weeks ever passes before The Root covers another story about wrongly convicted Black men being released from prison after spending years and even decades behind bars for crimes they did not commit due to the wilful negligence and indifference of law enforcement and courts.

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In 1996, George Bell, Rohan Bolt and Gary Johnson were arrested and convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer and the owner of a check-cashing store in Queens, N.Y. On Friday, a judge ordered their exoneration and release from prison after it was determined that evidence of their innocence was “deliberately withheld” from their attorneys.

From the Washington Post:

“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,” said Bell, who confessed to authorities in connection with the shooting deaths of New York police officer Charles Davis and another man, Ira Epstein, whose check-cashing store in Queens was robbed the morning of Dec. 21, 1996.

Although Bell and Johnson, then 19 and 22 years old, respectively, both confessed, they had been “subject to coercive interrogations” and their statements “bear all the hallmarks of the false confessions that resulted in wrongful convictions in the past,” according to a motion filed earlier Friday by private attorneys and public defenders involved in the effort to overturn their convictions.

At the time of the crimes, Bell had a job stocking shelves at an Old Navy and Johnson was a store clerk. They did not have criminal records, nor did they know Bolt, who authorities alleged was their accomplice in the botched robbery.

Bell gave a confession “riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies, a product of the fact that its details were fed to him by detectives who were working with incomplete and faulty information,” the attorneys wrote.

Bolt, 35 at the time and a father of four who owned a Caribbean restaurant, never confessed. He was arrested based on an identification from a purported witness with a history of drug use and “no known connection to the crime,” according to the court filing detailing the case’s history.

Neither Bell nor Johnson would be the first or likely even the thousandth Black male in America to be coerced into confessing to crimes they were innocent of. Black people being browbeaten into making false confessions represents a practice in policing that occurs far more often than many law enforcement agencies would have you believe—this is well-documented.

In fact, this story is eerily reminiscent of that of the Central Park Five—especially because, much like in the case of the Five, the exoneration of these three men hasn’t changed the fact that they’re still perceived as guilty to some in power.

According to the Post, Patrick J. Lynch, president of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, was big mad about the exoneration of Bell, Johnson and Bolt and he issued a statement saying Davis’s family is “devastated by the possibility that nobody will be held accountable for his murder.”

“There is absolutely no reason that these convicted cop-killers should be put back on the street,” Lynch (whose surname appears to be apt) said that if Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz “does not believe there is sufficient evidence of their innocence,” the suspects should stay in prison until everyone is satisfied that they’re not criminals.

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Imagine having your very freedom be trivialized like this because law enforcement officials would rather blame the wrongly convicted for why the families of murder victims didn’t receive justice, rather than blame the severely flawed and racist justice system that created the situation.

More from the Post:

Starting in 2019, disclosures made in an unrelated matter revealed evidence that suggested others were potentially responsible — information that existed during the men’s prosecution and, by law, should have been provided immediately to their attorneys.

Lawyers for Bell, Bolt and Johnson argued there was no physical evidence connecting the men to the crime. There was evidence, however, that a robbery crew known as Speedstick had been involved, but the records to support that were withheld from defense lawyers, the district attorney’s office conceded.

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Yet, certain law enforcement officials would rather innocent Black men remain in lockup rather than admit that, in this case, what should have been due process ended up being a botched process that created more victims and brought justice to no one.

Zack Linly is a poet, performer, freelance writer, blogger and grown man lover of cartoons

DISCUSSION

Dr Emilio Lizardo

Anybody who knowingly, willfully, and illegally, withheld evidence from their attorneys is guilty of kidnapping and should go to jail. They were cops and lawyers.  They knew the rules and chose to break them.  Not just lose their job or lose a civil lawsuit. Go. To. Jail.