Over two decades after they were convicted of a double murder in Astoria, three men walked out of prison this week, newly freed after Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz’s office found violations in their original trial.
George Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt were released without bail by Queens Administrative Judge Joseph Zayas on Friday, March 5.
The three men were originally convicted in the Dec. 21, 1996, murders of Ira Epstein, the owner of an Astoria check cashing business, and off-duty NYPD officer Charles Davis, who was working as a security guard at Epstein’s business. However, the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit recently found that the trial prosecutors inadvertently failed to disclose records that would have helped the defendants’ case, as required by law.
The DA’s team said they found documents suggesting that a gang called “Speedstick” may have instead been behind the slaying, after one of its members copped to committing the robbery gone wrong to authorities.
Additionally, one of the prosecution’s star witnesses — a man who accused Bell, Johnson and Bolt of committing the crime — was found to have a history of mental illness and was experiencing hallucinations around the time of the murder.
“This is a tragic case that has affected many lives,” Katz said.
While Friday’s hearing didn’t completely exonerate Bell, Johnson and Bolt, the evidence found by the DA’s unit is in violation of New York law, which requires the vacatur of a conviction if there is a failure to disclose exculpatory evidence.
“As the chief law enforcement officer of Queens County, I cannot stand behind these convictions in light of the Brady violations that my Conviction Integrity Unit identified. However, there is at this time insufficient evidence of actual innocence and therefore we are taking this opportunity to re-evaluate and examine the evidence,” Katz said.
As Bell, Johnson and Bolt live free lives for the first time in over 20 years, prosecutors will have 90 days to decide whether or not to drop the murder charges.