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$17.675 Million Paid for New Yorker’s Wrongful Conviction

by Jacob Barrett

Johnny Hincapie spent more than 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. On December 7, 2022, New York City agreed to pay Hincapie $12.875 million for his wrongful conviction, one of the largest such settlements in city history. A separate claim had previously been settled with the state of New York for $4.8 million in October 2022, according to Hincapie’s attorneys, Baree N. Fett and Gabriel P. Harvis of Elefterakis, Elefterakis & Panek.

Hincapie, who was originally born in Columbia, was 18 years old in 1990 when he and several other youths were accused of fatally stabbing Utah tourist Brian Watkins, 22, on a subway platform. Under pressure from police, Hincapie was coerced into falsely confessing to the murder. He later recanted, and exculpatory evidence verified he was not guilty – but not before he served 25 years, three months and eight days behind bars.

Hincapie’s forced confession was not unusual for the New York Police Department (NYPD) at the time. The year before his arrest, the “Central Park Five” were also wrongly convicted of brutally raping jogger Trisha Meili, after they were forced to falsely confess to the crime. Former Pres. Donald J. Trump (R), then still a businessman making bad bets on Atlantic City casinos, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times urging state lawmakers to bring back the death penalty – which he also wanted extended to crimes less than murder, like Meili’s rape. By the time the five were exonerated and released, they had spent seven to 13 years in prison. The city paid $41 million to settle with them in 2016. [See: PLN, Mar. 2016, p.58.]

The detective who forced confessions from the Central Park Five, Carlos Gonzalez, also coerced Hincapie to confess. According to the complaint Hincapie filed, Gonzalez and detective Donald Casey used similar tactics, ignoring other defendants who were arrested for the crime when they stated that Hincapie was not involved because “the detectives were not interested in the truth.”

Each of the suspects in Hincapie’s case reported being threatened, punched and kicked by detectives during the interrogation. The detectives and the prosecution colluded to withhold evidence, including an eyewitness who was ready to testify that Hincapie was not even on the subway platform when Watkins was killed.

There was even a 1990 report by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Police Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Procedures of NYPD that found “perjury and falsification of official records” was “a serious problem facing” NYPD, which the complaint says was the primary reason for Hincapie’s wrongful conviction.

As the complaint concluded, “[t]he city of New York systemically failed adequately to train its police officers, detectives and investigators to conduct constitutionally adequate investigations; not to lie about their conduct; to accurately document the manner in which investigations were conducted” and maliciously prosecuted innocent defendants.

The terms of the settlement included costs and fees for Hincapie’s attorneys. City spokesman Nick Paolucci called the settlement “fair.” But Harvis, one of the attorneys who represented Hincapie, noted that his client suffered irreparable emotional and mental anguish and injury for crimes he had no part in. See: Hincapie v. City of New York, USDC (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:18-cv-03432.

After a state judge tossed his conviction in 2015, Hincapie was released from prison. Manhattan’s then-District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced in 2017 that Hincapie would not be retried. Behind bars at Sing Sing State Prison, Hincapie pursued his education, earning a G.E.D. and ultimately a master’s degree in theology.

“What happened to Brian Watkins was tragic and I have never forgotten the loss his family suffered,” said Hincapie, now 50. “I am fortunate that once again, my innocence has finally been acknowledged by my city, my state, and I look forward to the next chapter of my life with my family.”

Additional sources: ABC News, AP News, New York Times