Finally free after spending 24 years in prison as convicted killers, the Queens district attorney on Friday officially dropped murder charges against three men who were found guilty of a high-profile double homicide in 1996.
Flanked by family and supporters, Gary Johnson, Rohan Bolt and George bell left Queens Criminal Court, celebrating and getting emotional about their new beginning.
"It feels so good, just to hold my mother, hold her close today," said Bell.
"Twenty-five years ago, I walked up these same steps as an innocent man. And today ... I'm here, still, as an innocent man."
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This case is so much bigger then the injustice that kept the three behind bars for two decades. It’s about a broken system in the former administration of the Queens DA’s office that allowed prosecutors to hide critical evidence from the defense, including this police report linking others — connected to a local robbery crew called the Speedstick gang — to a 1996 double murder at a check cashing store in Astoria.
"They had evidence I couldn't have committed this crime, and they still seek the death penalty against me," Bell said.
Bell was eventually sentenced to life without parole, while Bolt and Johnson got 50 years to life. The men were released in March from Greenhaven Prison after a judge vacated their convictions. Queens DA Melinda Katz agreed with the decision, after her newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit found all that evidence the defense never saw.
With the murder charges officially dropped, there will be no retrial. But the pain lingers.
"Bitter is deeply in my soul" said Johnson. "What they done to me 24 years ago, will never be forgotten."
The fallout from the handling of the case led to two resignations, including that of Brad Leventhal, who became the powerful Homicide Bureau Chief in the DA’s office.
“You can count on your fingers the number of prosecutors who ever get punished for their misconduct in a courtroom,” said Mitchell Dinnerstein, the defense attorney who represented Bell at trial.
Rita Dave took on the cause of Johnson and Bolt 12 years ago, calling it “a tragedy, also for the victims and their families, because there is no closure. The people who did that crime are still not held accountable."
The investigation to find the real killers now goes to the cold case unit. The three men plan another legal battle, and said they will be suing the city and the state for their wrongful convictions.