By Mark Hallum
After having spent 25 years in prison, Bayside native Johnny Hincapie gets to walk free and not face another trial after his conviction was overturned in the stabbing death of a Utah tourist in 1990.
Prosecutors from the Manhattan DA’s office dismissed the case at a disposition hearing last week in which they reiterated their belief that he was still guilty, but would not pursue keeping him in prison because he had already served a quarter century behind bars, according to Bill Hughes, a journalist who has kept the case alive in recent years.
“Had they retried him and convicted him, he would have been sent back to prison with a 25-years-to-life sentence and could have died in prison,” Hughes said in an interview.
Hughes is an investigative reporter and journalism professor at York College who got involved with the Hincapie case when he was on the staff of the Journal News in Westchester.
Hincapie was only 18 when he was arrested and charged with killing Utah tourist Brian Watkins, who was in the city for the US Open in 1990. Watkins was stabbed to death during a robbery by several young men inside the subway station at 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue while trying to defend his parents.
In the 1990s, city crime rates were the highest they had ever been and elected and police officials were under pressure to arrest the men responsible for the high-profile death of Watkins.
Within 24 hours, police had rounded up eight suspects, including Johnny Hincapie, who would not return home to Bayside for 25 years.
Hincapie’s case was reopened based on newly discovered evidence, followed by a series of hearings which acted as an extension of his original murder trial. In October 2015, Hincapie’s conviction was overturned by Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Eduardo Padro and he was granted a new trial based on new evidence. It was the first time a conviction had been voided and a new trial was granted in a non-DNA related evidence-based case.
The new evidence, which would bring redemption for Hincapie, came in the form of new witness testimony from Flushing resident Luis Montero as well as Mariluz Santana.
Hincapie claimed that when he was arrested, the police who interrogated him beat and coerced him into a confession. Montero was one of the eight suspects arrested and he claimed to have experienced the same treatment from the investigators.
One of the accused had confessed to the stabbing, while seven others said they were beaten into a confession.
Having contacted a lawyer in a timely manner, Montero was able to avoid the same fate as Hincapie and the charges against him were dropped. He did, however, spend 18 months on Rikers Island.
His attorney had advised him to keep silent about the ordeal, advice he took for years until he was approached by Hughes to testify in the reopened case.
“I eventually found him and got him to talk to me,” Hughes said. “He broke down in tears and said ‘yeah, that guy wasn’t there. I know he wasn’t there. But my lawyer told me to keep my mouth shut and not to talk about this case.’”
Montero said Hughes was the first person to ask him about the case since his charges were dropped years earlier.
The hearings to get Hincapie cleared would soon be underway.
A New York Post story about the ongoing hearings brought yet another witness out of the woodwork.
Mariluz Santana was on the subway platform at the time of the murder and was shocked Hincapie was still sitting in prison.
Santana initially declined to testify because her mother feared for the safety of her daughter and grandchildren since defending Hincapie meant sending the real perpetrator to prison.
The final hearing Jan. 25 ended with the case against Hincapie finally dropped.
According to Hughes, Hincapie plans to pursue a civil suit against the Manhattan district attorney’s office and NYPD, charging unlawful imprisonment and unlawful prosecution.
For the time being, Hincapie is glad to be free and is living with his parents while he restarts his life after spending 25 years, one month and three days of it in prison.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall