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Three men who claim innocence spent 24 years behind bars. Now, freedom feels "surreal"

3 convictions overturned 24 years later
3 men freed from prison after murder case falls apart 24 years later 05:02

Three men who were just released from prison after spending 24 years behind bars for a crime they say they did not commit are speaking to "CBS This Morning" after a judge overturned their convictions.

George Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt were each sentenced to at least 50 years for a deadly attempted robbery in New York City. Their lawyers argued the case was based on false confessions and racial bias.

"The feeling of freedom is is so surreal right now. Like, words just can't describe," George Bell told CBS News' Nikki Battiste.

It is a feeling that comes after more than two decades in prison for 44-year-old George Bell, 46-year-old Gary Johnson and 59-year-old Rohan Bolt, when the three men were able to reunited with their families Friday. 

Their story starts on December 21, 1996, when two men were shot and killed during an attempted robbery in Queens. One was an off-duty NYPD officer. 

Days later Bell, Johnson and Bolt were arrested. Bell and Johnson claim they were forced to confess after hours-long interrogations, and later recanted.

"They took advantage of my mental state," Johnson said. "Their tactic was just to keep me up until I was just that mentally fatigued that I was perplexed."

Johnson also said he was treated harshly by investigators, "both mentally and physically."

He described being grabbed and choked by them — feeling "scared, confused, angry." 

"They was just very aggressive. When I put my head down to get some kind of rest to collect my thoughts, they'll come in and just bang on the table," Johnson said. 

The three men were represented by attorneys Rita Dave and Marc Wolinsky. 

"A lot of people will say, 'Well, if I didn't do it, why would I say I did it?'" Dave said. "But you can say that in the comfort of your living room, not when you're in a little room with four police officers talking to you, and you can't speak to your parents."

Wolinsky said he was certain race played a role in the case.

"A 19-year-old Black kid, he must be guilty. He confessed, he must be guilty," he said.

All three of the former inmates maintain their innocence. 

In 2019 a police report re-surfaced in another wrongful death investigation — this time, unredacted and with crucial details.

A never-before-seen third page of the report held key evidence that implicates a local gang in the 1996 shooting, and not Bell, Johnson or Bolt. 

Queens County District Attorney Melinda Katz said it was "arrogant" to think law enforcement never made mistakes. 

Katz created a Wrongful Conviction Unit when she took the role just 14 months ago.

Asked if Bell, Johnson and Bolt's case was simply a mistake or the result of prosecutorial misconduct, she said, "My conviction integrity unit that spent 11 months on this case truly believes that it was not a purposeful misconduct."

Katz's office joined the motion to vacate the trio's convictions because prosecutors had withheld evidence that, if disclosed, could have reasonable possibility of affecting the outcome of the case. 

That led to a judge approving the release of Bell, Johnson and Bolt last week. 

"When they released me, the first thing I did was look for my wife. When I found her I hugged her so hard I had to apologize afterwards," Johnson said. 

Bolt said he was "still trying to recoup" after more than two decades behind bars.

"Twenty-four years of my life spent in somewhere where I don't belong, I try to do the best," he said. "Basically I just go day to day, you know?"

Johnson said he is still unable to sleep after finding his newfound freedom. 

Bell said he would "open up the fridge at night just to open it up."

These days, Bell said he wakes up "with a smile every day" as a free man.

"I wake up knowing there's a burden lifted off of my shoulders," he said. "And it's a beautiful feeling. And I know that it's gonna greater every day."

One of the original lead prosecutors of the case resigned from his role at another district attorney's office just Tuesday. Prosecutors in Queens will decide whether to retry the men in the next three months.  As of now, Bell, Johnson and Bolt still face their original charges.

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