Juan Carlos “Johnny” Hincapie, 43, spent most of his Wednesday at home with family in Queens. He ate a breakfast of arepas with cheesy scrambled eggs and then purchased some clothes at Century 21, according to the New York Daily News.
An ordinary day for most, but not for Hincapie. Wednesday — his first full day out of prison in 25 years — marked an unexpected twist in a criminal case with great historical resonance.
In 1990, a crime-ridden New York City was seeing its reputation go up in flames.
And it was the year a Utah man was mercilessly slain on a subway platform while visiting with family, which became emblematic of all New York’s ills. The apprehension and conviction of seven young men associated with the murder was a relief for the embattled city.
Hincapie was one of those convicted in that crime. Tuesday his conviction was overturned based on new evidence challenging Hincapie’s presence on the subway platform, along with Hincapie’s contention that his confession to the crime was coerced.
The judge in the case, New York State Supreme Court Justice Eduardo Padro acted after hearings held starting last February convinced him that the new evidence on Hincapie’s whereabouts, while not sufficient to exonerate Hincapie, could have changed the outcome of the trial. While Hincapie walked out of prison, he still faces a retrial.
Nevertheless, he said afterwards, “I feel wonderful. I feel free.”
Hincapie, of Queens, was an 18-year-old high school student who joined a group of 40 to 50 young people passing through the Seventh Avenue subway station on their way to a nightclub when the mugging and fatal stabbing took place. The robbers responsible for Brian Watkins’s death were part of the same group, but Hincapie has long maintained that he wasn’t with them at the time of the incident.
In his testimony at the hearings before Padro, Hincapie maintained that the detective who interrogated him had forced him into a false confession.”He just said I was a liar,” he testified, recalling that the detective “flew into a rage” beating, slapping and kicking him until he was on the ground. The detective yelled racial slurs and told Hincapie he would not last long in jail.
In interviews with City Limits, four of Hincapie’s co-defendants recounted similar stories of abuse, threats and false promises. The detectives denied these claims during the trials, where they described their conversations with the suspects as “polite, cordial and relaxed.”
At the hearings, one of the other suspects convicted for the murder testified that he did not remember Hincapie being on the platform when Watkins was stabbed, according to the AP. Two other witnesses, including one who was originally charged, corroborated Hincapie’s claim that he was away from the platform when the killing took place.
Prosecutors argued that given the chaos on the platform at the time of the crime, the new testimony would not have changed the outcome of the trial. But Prado said the new information raised “real doubt” as to whether Hincapie was involved with the crime, as the New York Law Journal reported.
Hincapie “always maintained an optimism and a certain hope that this day was going to come for him,” his lawyer, Ron Kuby, told the AP.
Padro released Hincapie on $1 bail while prosecutors decide whether to appeal the ruling and retry the case.
The first of many meals as a free man pic.twitter.com/DIxadZisY9
— Free Johnny Hincapie (@FreeJohnnyH) October 7, 2015
Hincapie told reporters outside the courthouse that the first thing he wanted was a seafood dinner. Surrounded by family and friends later that night, he cheerfully dug into a fish plate.
On Wednesday, he spoke to the New York Daily News about learning how to use a smartphone.
“I understand the concept about the selfie,” Hincapie said. “But I’m like, okay, what’s the big deal?”
Despite the seemingly lighthearted tone of his remarks, the moment’s weight was lost on no one.
Hincapie’s father, Carlos, told the AP: “After 25 years of suffering, after 25 years of injustice, after 25 years of sleepless nights, God just revealed his justice.”