A man imprisoned for a quarter-century in a notorious tourist killing was granted a new trial and freed on Tuesday after a judge overturned his conviction in a case that helped crystallize an era of crime and fear in the nation's biggest city.
Johnny Hincapie broke into sobs as he heard the decision to throw out his conviction in a subway-platform mugging that killed Utah tourist Brian Watkins as Watkins defended his parents. Hours later, he walked out of the courthouse and into the arms of crying family members, beaming.
"I feel wonderful. I feel free!" he said, tears coming down his cheeks.
State Supreme Court Justice Eduardo Padro cited new evidence, including new testimony from two witnesses and a co-defendant saying Hincapie wasn't involved in the crime. Padro stopped short of declaring Hincapie innocent, as he and his lawyers had hoped the judge might, but agreed to release him on $1 bail while awaiting a retrial.
"After 25 years of suffering, after 25 years of injustice, after 25 years of sleepless nights, God just revealed his justice," said Hincapie's father, Carlos.
Prosecutors said they were weighing whether to appeal the ruling and were committed to retrying the case, if necessary.
"We regret the fact that retrying the case would subject the family of Mr. Watkins to testifying at another trial, reopening old wounds and forcing them to relive the horror of that night 25 years ago," Manhattan district attorney's office spokeswoman Joan Vollero said in a statement.
A message left for Watkins' mother wasn't immediately returned.
Hincapie said he was a bystander who was wrongfully swept up in the case and then was coerced into a false confession. Prosecutors said his claims aren't credible.
The killing became a symbol of random violence in a city that was reeling from it, after the 1989 rape and beating of a woman known as the Central Park jogger and a spate of bloodshed in the summer of 1990. Watkins' death — one of a record-setting 2,245 in 1990, compared to 333 last year — brought a public plea from his family for better subway safety and helped prompt then-Mayor David Dinkins to propose a program designed to increase police protection.
Watkins, 22, and his parents were in town from Provo, Utah, for the U.S. Open tennis tournament. They were heading to dinner when they were jumped by a group of youths looking to rob people to get money to go to a dance hall, police said. After his father was slashed and robbed of $200 and his mother was punched and kicked, Watkins was stabbed in the chest yet chased the attackers up two stairways before collapsing under a turnstile.
"Why did they do this to me?" he said, according to his father's testimony at the trial of Hincapie and several co-defendants. "We're just here to have a good time."
Hincapie, a Colombian immigrant whose name is pronounced hihn-CAHP'-ee-ay, was one of seven young men convicted in the case. Another defendant was accused of actually stabbing Watkins, but authorities said the whole group bore responsibility for his death.
Hincapie, now 43, has long maintained he was in a different part of the subway station when the stabbing happened.
"I had nothing to do with this," he wrote in a 1990 letter to his lawyer at the time. "I am innocent."
After unsuccessfully appealing his conviction, Hincapie brought another challenge in 2013. It relied partly on a sworn statement from an exonerated co-defendant saying Hincapie played no part in the attack. A man who was convicted, and a witness who came forward only in the last two years, also said during the hearing that Hincapie wasn't involved.
Meanwhile, Hincapie testified that a detective beat him to get him to sign a confession.
Prosecutors said there was "no credible newly discovered evidence" in the case.
But Padro wrote that the new evidence would "create a probability that had such evidence been received at trial the verdict would have been more favorable to the defendant" — a legal standard for tossing out a conviction.
Hincapie has finished high school and earned bachelor's and master's degrees while serving 25 years to life in prison. He has never despaired of being cleared, said his lawyer, Ron Kuby.
"He always maintained an optimism and a certain hope that this day was going to come for him."