“Today is the day I’m going home,” Bell said.
In 1996, the three Queens natives were charged with the murders of off-duty police officer Charles Davis and business owner Ira “Mike” Epstein. Throughout they maintained their innocence, they were convicted of the crimes and have spent the last 24 years in prison.
The joint motion, filed by District Attorney Melinda Katz and defense counsel, sought to vacate their sentences.
Over the last 11 months, more than 30 witnesses were interviewed after evidence was brought to the DA and the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) that called into question the original convictions.
“I cannot stand behind these convictions,” Katz said at the hearing.
On the morning December 21, 1996, Epstein, the owner of a check cashing business on Astoria Boulevard, and Davis, who worked security for Epstein in his off hours, were opening for the day when they were shot and killed in a robbery gone wrong.
Their violent slayings set off an expedited manhunt that led to the arrest of Bell and Johnson, then 19 and 22 respectively, just days later. Bolt, then 35, was arrested shortly after.
It was later discovered that the information that led to their arrest, which originated from a small marijuana bust, came from a purported accomplice who may have been suffering from hallucinations.
Those mental health records, however, were never disclosed to the defense.
According to the DA’s office, the investigation by the CIU found that the trial prosecutors inadvertently failed to disclose records that were favorable to the defense. Katz stated she believes the “prosecutors acted in good faith.”
The prosecution also failed to disclose documents indicating that a member of the then-notorious “Speedstick” gang, known for robbing check-cashing facilities and armored cars, had implicated himself and other gang members in the attempted robbery and murders of Davis and Epstein.
The findings by the CIU, which Judge Joseph Zayas said were “egregious violations” of the civil liberties of Bell, Bolt and Johnson, are a violation of the Brady Rule, which states the prosecution must disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense.
Rita Dave, attorney to Bolt and Johnson, said her clients are on the “long road to recovery”.
“Though our clients are finally free, let us not forget the years of pain and enormous effort that led to this moment and that the work is not done,” she said.
Bell, Bolt and Johnson sat side by side at Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison located in upstate New York, during the hearing.
“For the past 24 years, I rose each day to the view of prison cell bars and said to myself, ‘today is the day I will find the key, today is the day I am going home,’” Bell said when it was his turn to speak. “I never gave up on my dream.”
Bell, Bolt and Johnson were released later in the day to smiling faces and family members.
“I am looking forward to the next chapter of my life,” said Bolt, a father of four and former owner of a Caribbean restaurant.
“I hope you open another restaurant,” Judge Zayas could be heard saying as the hearing came to a close.
Johnson, who has now spent more than half of his life in prison, reflected on the pain the last 24 years has brought him.
“While there is so much we have lost, we can finally move forward,” he said. “Still, we can never forget what’s happened. Even with progress we can’t stop fighting to change things for the better.”
People close to Bell, Bolt and Johnson have set up a GoFundMe campaign to help them restart their lives as free men.