June 4, 2021 By Ryan Songalia
Three men who spent nearly a quarter century behind bars after being wrongfully convicted for a 1996 double murder can now move on with their lives.
George Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt, who were released in March when their sentences were vacated due to prosecutorial misconduct, were notified by Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz Thursday that she would not retry them.
The men appeared in Queens Supreme Court this morning where the charges related to the 1996 killings of Charles Davis and Ira Epstein were formally dismissed. The two men were shot and killed on Dec. 21, 1996 during a botched robbery attempt at Epstein’s check cashing business in East Elmhurst. Davis, an off-duty NYPD officer, was working as a part-time security guard.
“As of this moment, you once again have the power to choose to decide what happens next in your lives,” said Justice Michelle Johnson during the hearing.
The decision not to pursue charges followed a three-month investigation by the Conviction Integrity Unit. That followed an eleven-month investigation where it was determined that the three men were victims of prosecutorial misconduct.
“There can be no true justice, in Queens County or anywhere else, unless we hold ourselves to the highest standards facilitating the process by which justice is sought. My commitment to the effort continues,” said Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz.
The investigation conducted by the Conviction Integrity Unit determined that the prosecutors failed to disclose key information at the time of the initial trial that would have helped the defense. For instance, the defense was not informed that a member of a gang called “Speedstick” had implicated himself and other members of his gang in the killings.
Prosecutors also failed to disclose the mental health records of a purported accomplice who testified against two of the defendants at trial.
The decision not to pursue charges follows 60 interviews with witnesses and a review of hundreds of hours of electronic evidence. Investigators also reevaluated DNA evidence, ballistics evidence and re-tested fingerprints.
Bell, who was 19 years old at the time of the killings, said he would close his eyes at night while in prison and imagine himself being at a family gathering. He has been able to make that dream a reality ever since March 5, when the three men were released from prison.
“To be free is the most amazing feeling in the world,” Bell said. He says that the small things in life, like calling his parents each morning, or even just opening his own refrigerator, are what he looks forward to each day.”
Gary Johnson, who was 22 at the time of the murders, says the charges being dropped brings a sense of closure to his life.
“The burden that has been sitting on my shoulders for the past 24 years has been lifted and I am excited to be able to start my life again,” Johnson said.
Rohan Bolt, who was 35 at the time of the killings, says he hopes his conviction being overturned will lead to other wrongly-convicted people being set free as well.
“I will never get that time back, but I will make the most of every day I have now,” Bolt said.