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City to Pay Record $17.5 Million Settlement After Wrongful Conviction

A man exonerated after spending over two decades in prison for murders in Queens that he did not commit will receive a $17.5 million settlement from New York City, an apparent record, according to his lawyer and city data.

The man, George Bell, was convicted with Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt for the 1996 killing of the owner of a check-cashing store in East Elmhurst and an off-duty police officer who was providing security. Mr. Bell was sentenced in 1999 to life in prison without parole.

In 2021, a judge threw out the three men’s convictions and admonished prosecutors for withholding evidence that could have cast doubt on their guilt. The judge also found that prosecutors had made false statements at trial.

“These three defendants were undoubtedly wronged by the district attorney’s office’s misconduct,” the judge, Joseph A. Zayas of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, wrote in his decision.

Mr. Bell’s settlement, confirmed by the city’s Law Department, is the largest the city has paid for a wrongful conviction, said Richard Emery, Mr. Bell’s lawyer. The city comptroller’s annual reports show none higher.

“It recognizes the horrible suffering that a young, innocent man went through facing the death penalty for three years and life without parole for 21 more,” Mr. Emery said.

The deal comes after Mr. Bell reached a $4.4 million settlement with the state, Mr. Emery said.

The exonerations of the three men occurred shortly after the Queens district attorney, Melinda Katz, in her first year on the job, created a unit to review cases that might have resulted in wrongful convictions. The review unit said it had found no intentional misconduct by the office in the handling of the men’s cases.

During a hearing on the exonerations, Judge Zayas said the prosecution had “completely abdicated its truth-seeking role in these cases.” Two prosecutors who had overseen the cases — Brad Leventhal, who was still working at the Queens district attorney’s office, and Charles Testagrossa, who was working as chief of investigations in the Nassau County district attorney’s office — later resigned.

In recent years, growing numbers of convictions from the 1990s — when soaring rates of homicide and other crimes in New York City led law enforcement agencies to aggressively pursue arrests — have been vacated. District attorneys have also created conviction integrity units to review potentially wrongful convictions. In the 2022 fiscal year, New York City settled cases involving 16 wrongful convictions, the most of any single year, according to a report from the city comptroller’s office. The settlements totaled nearly $87 million.

Accusations of misconduct against the Queens district attorney’s office are not new. After the East Elmhurst exonerations, law professors filed grievances against 21 Queens prosecutors in a variety of cases and built a website where they published relevant documents online.

But Mr. Emery said that Mr. Bell’s exoneration did not just represent justice for him but reflected reforms in the Queens district attorney’s office since Ms. Katz took office.

The murders of the shop owner, Ira Epstein, who was known as Mike, and the off-duty officer, Charles Davis, during an attempted robbery early in the morning on the weekend before Christmas in 1996 put intense pressure on the police to find the killers. Mr. Davis was the sixth officer killed that year.

Investigators had a break on Dec. 23 when they arrested a man on charges of selling marijuana, according to court documents. After days of questioning and “a series of statements of evolving content,” the man told the police that he had been a lookout for the attempted robbery at the store and indicated that Mr. Bell and Mr. Johnson had been involved, along with two others. The informant gave a nickname for one of the other unidentified men, which a police officer said Mr. Bolt had responded to.

Mr. Bell, 19 at the time, and Mr. Johnson, who was 22, were arrested on Dec. 24. Mr. Bolt, 35, a restaurant owner and a married father of four, was arrested on Dec. 25.

After being interrogated, Mr. Bell and Mr. Johnson initially confessed to having been involved in the crime, but they quickly recanted, according to court documents. Mr. Bolt denied his guilt and “did not make any incriminating statements.”

Years after their convictions, documents uncovered from that time showed that the police had connected members of a gang known as Speedstick, which had carried out armed robberies in the area, to the murders.

Another shooting months later that involved one of the gang’s leaders was so similar that investigators met to discuss both crimes, according to court documents. But when pressed by defense lawyers before and during Mr. Bell’s trial, prosecutors claimed that no records existed linking the cases.

The suppression of the Speedstick evidence was not “an isolated instance of misconduct, but part of a larger pattern of behavior that was calculated to deprive the defendants of fair trials,” Judge Zayas wrote in 2021. The pattern “was particularly egregious given that the death penalty was being sought against 19-year-old George Bell.”

When he was arrested, Mr. Bell was working as a stock boy at an Old Navy store and was an aspiring DJ. Months after his release from Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, N.Y., Mr. Bell stood in front of students at Hofstra University and gave a speech.

“I’m just a 19-year-old kid from Queens who likes to spin records, and hang with my family, and live life — that’s all I wanted to do,” he said. “I never thought I would be in prison fighting for my life.”

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