NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A judge on Tuesday granted a new trial to the man convicted in the 1990 murder of a Utah tourist — throwing out a verdict in a case that helped crystallize an era of crime and fear in the nation’s biggest city.
As CBS2’s Jessica Schneider reported, Johnny Hincapie spent 25 years in prison for his alleged role in the deadly mugging in Midtown. But the judge on Tuesday said prosecutors neglected important testimony.
Hincapie burst into tears, and his family erupted in applause inside the Manhattan courtroom, when Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Eduardo Padro announced that Hincapie’s conviction would be overturned and he would be granted a new trial.
Padro stopped short of declaring Hincapie innocent, as he and his lawyers had hoped the judge might, but agreed to release him while awaiting trial.
“It’s enormously difficult for both families,” said defense attorney Ronald Kuby. “They’re united in grief, but they should not be united in injustice.”
For years, Hincapie’s lawyers have argued that he played no part in the 1990 mugging and murder of Brian Watkins of Provo, Utah, at the subway platform at Seventh Avenue and 53rd Street.
Watkins, 22, was visiting New York with his family from Utah to see the US Open that Labor Day weekend. He and his parents were heading to dinner when they were jumped by a group of youths looking to rob people to get money to go to a nearby dance hall, police said.
After his father was slashed and robbed of $200 and his mother was punched and kicked, Watkins was stabbed in the chest yet chased the attackers up two stairways before collapsing under a turnstile. He later died.
“Why did they do this to me?” he said, according to his father’s testimony at the trial of Hincapie and several co-defendants. “We’re just here to have a good time.”
The killing became a symbol of random violence in a city that was reeling from it, after the 1989 rape and beating of a woman known as the Central Park jogger and a spate of bloodshed in the summer of 1990. Watkins’ death — one of a record-setting 2,245 in 1990, compared to 333 last year — brought a public plea from Watkins’ family for better subway safety and helped prompt then-Mayor David Dinkins to propose a program designed to increase police protection.
Hincapie, now 43, was one of seven young men convicted in the case. He was arrested a day after the murder.
Another defendant was accused of actually stabbing Watkins, but authorities said the whole group bore responsibility for his death.
Hincapie, who was serving 25 years to life, has long maintained he was in a different part of the subway station when the stabbing happened.
“I had nothing to do with this,” he wrote in a 1990 letter to his lawyer at the time. “I am innocent.”
Hincapie said he was a bystander who was wrongfully swept up in the case and then was coerced into a false confession.
“Johnny was innocent since the beginning,” said Carlos Hincapie. “He didn’t have nothing to do with the case.”
Johnny Hincapie claimed a detective beat him, and two witnesses have also come forward saying Hincapie was not even on the subway platform that night.
“He didn’t rob anybody. He didn’t kill anybody,” Carlos Hincapie said. “He was falsely and wrongly accused.”
Hincapie’s family embraced outside the courthouse, relieved that they will finally have their son home after 25 years in prison.
“Finally today, God has given us our son back,” said Johnny Hincapie’s mother, Maria Hincapie.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has not decided whether he will appeal the judge’s decision.
“We remain committed to re-trying the case, if necessary,” DA’s office spokeswoman Joan Vollero said in a statement. “We regret the fact that re-trying the case would subject the family of Mr. Watkins to testifying at another trial, reopening old wounds…”
Defense attorney Kuby said his client had always maintained hope. He said Hincapie earned a high school equivalency diploma and an associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree while in prison.
“He never gave in to despair, although surely despair was his cellmate every single day of this long quarter-century,” Kuby said. “He always maintained an optimism and a certain hope that this day was going to come for him.”
People were celebrating the news on the Twitter and Facebook pages called “Free Johnny Hincapie.”
After unsuccessfully appealing his conviction once, Hincapie brought another challenge in 2013. It relied partly on a sworn statement from an exonerated co-defendant saying Hincapie played no part in the attack. A man who was convicted, and a witness who came forward only in the last two years, also said during the hearing that Hincapie wasn’t involved, according to news reports.
“The evidence was varied, and it came through different witnesses, and the judge made it very clear his view was that an acquittal was the most likely outcome if there was to be a retrial,” Kuby told WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb.
The DA’s office said there was “no credible newly discovered evidence” in the case.
CBS2 tried to reach the Watkins family for comment, but the calls were not returned.
Meanwhile, Johnny Hincapie was still locked up Tuesday night, because he is in danger of being deported since he was born in Colombia and then convicted of a crime. Even though Hincapie’s conviction has now been overturned, his attorney wants him to stay in jail until they get the deportation order cleared.
(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)