George Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt were convicted of the 1996 murders of Ira “Mike” Epstein and New York City Police Officer Charles Davis on leave in the armed robbery of a control store cash.
“Today is the day I found the key. Today is the day, today is the day, today is the day, I go home,” Bell said on a video conference. from Green Haven Correctional Center in Stormville, New York, with Johnson and Bolt by his side.
The men were released on their own recognizance and are expected to return to court on June 4 for an update on whether they will be retried to be fully exonerated.
Queens Supreme Court Judge Joseph Zayas, who overturned the convictions on Friday, severely criticized prosecutors for trying to defend the actions of prosecutor Charles Testagrossa.
“The district attorney’s office deliberately withheld credible information about the guilt of a third party from the defense that proves that other people have committed these crimes.” This exculpatory information was in the possession of the prosecution and had in fact been investigated and documented by the lead prosecutor at Mr. Bell’s trial, ”Zayas said.
Testagrossa No longer works in the Queens District Attorney’s Office, but is currently an Executive Assistant District Attorney for Investigations with the Nassau County Attorney’s Office.
Statement by the trial attorney
In a statement sent to CNN, Testagrossa said throughout his career: “I disclosed all exculpatory material of which I was aware and I have done so in this case as well. …
“In more than forty years as a prosecutor, I had never been accused of misconduct by the prosecution,” he said. “I have always believed that all parties to a trial, the victims and their families and the accused and their families deserve fairness and justice.”
Testagrossa said he spoke to the Queens DA Conviction Integrity Unit on several occasions during the new investigation.
“In this case, there was no hearing and therefore no sworn testimony,” he said in the statement. “I was not asked to testify to answer the questions raised or to submit an affidavit. The only record was the defense filing and the prosecutor’s office response. It was the record on which the judge based his judgment. remarks. “
DA says the evidence has been accepted
Current Queens DA Melinda Katz and SDI Senior Prosecutor Bryce Benjet previously defended the prosecutor’s actions saying they were unintentional.
Katz said after an investigation of nearly a year by SDI, they found evidence favorable to the defense had not been forwarded, which is known as a Brady violation.
The evidence consisted of medical records showing a witness at their trial suffered from a mental illness that caused him to hallucinate, and documents indicating a gang member who had involved himself and others in the process. murders.
“It amazes and shocks me the awareness that even in 1997, constitutional violations of this magnitude could occur in any prosecution, let alone in a capital case in which the former district attorney was seeking the sentence of death of a 19-year-old. man, ”the judge said.
Zayas said he had “lost many nights of sleep” since receiving this case.
“George was tried for his life and luckily the jury did not impose this ultimate punishment and therefore George is alive to see this day,” said one of their attorneys, Marc Wolinsky. “If the jury had heard this evidence, they would have been acquitted. … Prosecutors acted in bad faith.”
“It has been a 24-year journey for themselves and all who love and support them,” said Rita Dave, another lawyer on their case. “Time is what life is measured by. So wasted time equals life lost. But today also begins the long road to recovery, rebuilding their lives, rebuilding from what was stolen from them. in time lost with their communities. “
Bell, who was 19 at the time of his arrest, was sentenced to life without parole. Bolt and Johnson, then 35 and 21 respectively, were both given 50 years of life.
While Bell, Johnson and Bolt, now 45, 46 and 59 respectively, were released on their own engagement on Friday, prosecutors have asked to continue investigating the case.