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Queens Court Drops Convictions Of 3 Men Wrongfully Imprisoned For 1996 Murder Of Off-Duty NYPD Officer

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Three men who spent two decades in prison had their convictions dismissed in a Queens court Friday after new evidence was uncovered.

Cheers erupted as George Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt walked out of criminal court free men with their names cleared, CBS2's Natalie Duddridge reported.

The three were wrongfully convicted of a double murder in Queens and spent 24 years in prison.

"I dreamt about this moment for so many years, for so many years waking up in a prison cell looking at bars," Bell said.

"The first thing I did was hug my wife so strongly. She said, 'Hold on, you're hurting me,'" Johnson said.

"Being away so long, it's a different world out here today," Bolt said.

In December 1996, Ira Mike Epstein and off-duty police detective Charles Davis were shot and killed during an attempted robbery.

George Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt
(credit: CBS2)

Bell and Johnson were 19 and 22, respectively, when they were arrested. They didn't know Bolt, a 34-year-old married father of four and restaurant owner, before that.

Bolt described his shock when police showed up looking for him.

"I was just going about my business and they just came up on me," he said. "I came out of the house for my wife to go to the store and never went back home."

The court heard none of the men had a criminal history. No physical evidence linked them to the crime.

Recently, defense attorneys discovered key documents that had been kept secret.

"A piece of evidence that the DA withheld, concealed, fell into our laps," said attorney Marc Wolinsky. "It showed that other men had committed this crime."

"It's not a mistake. They knew exactly what they were doing beforehand," Johnson said. "They had all the documents to display exactly what they just uncovered."

That led Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz to investigate.

In March, the men were released on their own recognizance. They had to wait and see if there would be a retrial or a dismissal.

On Friday, all charges were officially dropped. The investigation is now in the hands of the cold case unit.

Bell, Johnson and Bolt are dealing with their new freedom in different ways.

"Bitter but, you got to move forward," Bolt said.

"Ecstatic. I'm just feeling good. Justice finally prevailed," Johnson said.

"I still pinch myself and say, 'Is this really real?' I still open my fridge every day, just for no reason, just so I can open my fridge," Bell said.

All three said they're looking forward to making up for lost time with their loved ones.

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