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Johnny Hincapie

Other New York Exonerations with False Confessions
In September 1990, 22-year-old Brian Watkins and his family traveled from their Utah home to New York City to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament. On the night of September 2, they decided to take the subway from their hotel on West 53rd Street to have dinner in Greenwich Village.

While they were on the platform, they were attacked by a group of youths who knocked down Brian’s father, Sherwin. They slashed open two of his pants pockets with a box cutter, severely injuring him, and took about $200 in cash. When one of the attackers grabbed Brian’s mother, Karen, by the hair and kicked her in the face and chest, Brian intervened and was stabbed in the chest. Brian’s brother and sister-in-law were not touched.

The attackers fled up the escalator and Brian chased them. However, he collapsed on the way up, near the token booth. He died in an ambulance, his pulmonary artery severed in the stabbing.

The attack sent shock waves through New York City in a year when more than 2,200 murders eventually would be recorded. Just days later, the New York Post emblazoned its front page with the words “DAVE, DO SOMETHING!” in a plea to then-Mayor David Dinkins. Ultimately, seven young men, ages 17-20, were convicted and all were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

The police rounded up numerous suspects for questioning after a witness said a large group of young men and women had poured out of the subway station at about the time of the crime. They were headed for the Roseland Ballroom, a nightclub on West 52nd Street, to go dancing.

Police learned that about an hour before the attack, a group of several dozen teenagers boarded the train in Queens, headed for the Ballroom. They got off the train at the station where the Watkins family was waiting and most of them went upstairs. However, several of the teenagers came back down because they didn’t have the $15 cover charge to get into the Ballroom and decided to get the money by committing a robbery.

Immediately after the crime, the attackers and a crowd of people who were on the platform and witnessed the attack rushed upstairs to the street. Antonio Gonzalez, a locksmith, was standing outside the subway entrance. He later told police that he had seen a large group of teenagers come up and head to the ballroom, but that several returned and went back into the subway. Minutes later, after a horde of panicked people came out of the subway, he went down and found Karen Watkins, bleeding and hysterical.

Gonzalez and police later went to the Ballroom where Gonzalez pointed out Anthony Anderson as one of the youths he had seen emerging from the subway. He also pointed out Luis Montero as a youth he had seen standing outside the subway entrance. Members of the Watkins family were driven to the Ballroom. From the police car, they viewed Montero and Anderson and identified them being among the attackers.

Montero and Anderson were taken to the police station and interrogated by two detectives. One was Carlos Gonzalez, who had played a major role a year earlier in obtaining (what would ultimately be determined to be false) confessions from Antron McCray and Kevin Richardson, who were exonerated, along with Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Steven Lopez in the attack known as the Central Park jogger case.

Montero refused to confess, but Anderson did. Based on his statement, along with descriptions given by the Watkins family, detectives arrested several more suspects outside the Ballroom when it closed in the early morning hours of September 3, 1990.

Two of those suspects, Pascual Carpenter and Ricardo Nova, also confessed to taking part in the attack. Based on information they gave, detectives arrested Emiliano Fernandez, Yull Morales and Ricardo Lopez. All three of them confessed as well.

At that point police had seven youths in custody and six had confessed to the same story: that the Watkins family was attacked and robbed for money to get into the Ballroom. The eighth youth charged was 18-year-old Johnny Hincapie, an aspiring dancer, who was implicated by Fernandez, Carpenter and Nova.

A day later, police said Hincapie had confessed as well and his statement was recorded on video.

A year later, the New York County District Attorney’s Office dismissed charges against one of the eight, Luis Montero (the only defendant who had not confessed), and proceeded to trial against the remaining seven. Hincapie was tried in New York County Supreme Court along with Pascual Carpenter, Ricardo Nova and Emiliano Fernandez, the youth who had implicated Hincapie during interrogation.

The other three defendants—Ricardo Lopez, Yull Morales and Anthony Anderson—were tried separately. Separating the defendants into two groups allowed the prosecution to prevent Hincapie’s lawyer from presenting a statement Lopez made to police during Lopez’s interrogation. In that statement, Lopez said that Hincapie was not present at the crime. The defense lawyer tried to introduce the statement, but the trial judge ruled the statement was inadmissible hearsay.

No physical or forensic evidence linked Hincapie to the crime. None of the family members could identify him. Karen Watkins, Brian’s mother, testified that she had viewed a lineup after Hincapie was arrested and that while he looked “vaguely familiar,” she could not say he was involved.

The prosecution presented a videotaped confession given by Hincapie following an interrogation by several detectives. Hincapie testified that the confession was false and was coerced by a detective who slapped him in the head, shoved him to the floor with his foot, repeatedly screamed at him and blew cigarette smoke in his face.

The detective denied mistreating Hincapie and denied Hincapie’s assertion that he had been given a scenario to memorize so that Hincapie could repeat it when he gave his recorded statement.

Hincapie never denied he was among the group of teenagers who were heading to the Roseland Ballroom. He claimed that he had given his cash to a friend to hold for him because the designer pants he was wearing were too tight to fit a wallet. Hincapie said that when he got off the train and came up to street level, he couldn’t find his friend and went back down into the subway to try to find him.

As he was heading down an escalator, Hincapie said a large group of people came rushing up, so he turned around and went back up to the street where he saw his friend, got his money and went to the dance. He said he did not learn of the attack until he saw it on the news the following day—the same day he was arrested.

On November 10, 1991, a jury convicted Hincapie and his co-defendants of second-degree murder and robbery. They were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. The other three defendants—including Morales who admitted he was the one who stabbed Brian Watkins—were convicted in their separate trial and also sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Over the next 15 years, Hincapie lost all of his appeals. Attorney Vivian Shevitz, who was appointed to represent him on appeal from the denial of a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, continued to represent him after the appeal failed—without charge. In May 2007, Shevitz wrote to the New York County District Attorney’s office requesting that the case be re-investigated.

The office did re-open the case and interviewed Hincapie, but ultimately closed the case saying they were satisfied that Hincapie was guilty. Hincapie and his lawyers were skeptical that the re-investigation had been taken seriously—the prosecutor who directed the re-investigation was the same prosecutor who had presented the evidence against Hincapie at trial in 1991.

In 2006, William Hughes, a journalist and professor at City University of New York, met Hincapie while researching an article on false confessions. At the time, Hughes was working for The Journal News in Westchester County, New York. In 2010, after the prosecution closed its re-investigation, Hughes published a lengthy article about Hincapie’s case. Hughes was convinced that Hincapie was innocent and decided to write a book about the case.

During his research, he discovered that Montero had never been questioned by defense lawyers about whether Hincapie was involved in the crime. Montero told Hughes that he knew Hincapie was not involved because he actually was with him briefly when Hincapie had gone down into the subway looking for his friend who had Hincapie’s money.

Hughes wrote to the six men who were convicted of the crime. Two of them agreed to meet with Hughes, but said they couldn’t remember if Hincapie was involved or even present. Two others refused to speak to Hughes, citing the advice of their attorneys and two others did not respond at all.

In 2013, attorneys Ronald Kuby and Leah Busby filed a post-conviction petition on behalf of Hincapie seeking a new trial. The petition included a sworn statement from Montero that Hincapie was within his sight at the time of the crime and was nowhere near the attack. Montero also described being physically abused by detectives during his interrogation—abuse similar to that described by Hincapie.

Montero’s statement was supported by a sworn affidavit from Anthony Anderson, one of the six others who had confessed and been convicted. Anderson, who had refused to speak to Hughes on the advice of his attorney, said in the affidavit that Hincapie was not involved in the crime.

The petition also cited the statement by Ricardo Lopez to police at the time of his interrogation. In that statement—which had been barred from Hincapie’s trial—Lopez said that he and five others, but not Hincapie or Montero, were involved.

Beginning in February 2015, New York County Supreme Court Judge Eduardo Padro conducted a series of evidentiary hearings on the petition. Hincapie testified and denied involvement and described his interrogation. Montero and Anderson also testified. Montero recounted that Hincapie was upstairs and not on the platform when the crime occurred, and Anderson testified that he was involved in the attack but Hincapie was not.

In addition, the defense presented Mariluz Santana, a 45-year-old hospital worker. Santana, who had not previously come forward, testified that she was on the platform and witnessed the attack. Hincapie, she said, was not there.

In October 2015, Judge Padro granted the petition, vacated Hincapie’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The judge said that the testimony of Santana, Montero and Anderson would have likely changed the outcome of Hincapie’s trial. “All three witnesses indicate that Hincapie was not on the subway platform at the actual moment of the robbery of the Watkins family. Each statement exculpates Mr. Hincapie.”

On October 6, 2015, Hincapie was released on bond pending a retrial. The prosecution appealed Judge Padro’s decision. In September 2016, the Appellate Division of the New York County Supreme Court upheld Judge Padro’s ruling.

On January 24, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

In April 2018, Hincapie's attorney Gabriel Harvis filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of New York, alleging malicious prosecution, fabrication of evidence and false imprisonment. In November 2018, Harvis and his firm, Elefterakis, Elefterakis & Panek, filed a claim for unjust conviction on Hincapie's behalf in the New York Court of Claims. The state claim was settled in October 2022 for $4.8 million, and the lawsuit was settled in November 2022 for $12.9 million.

In 2023, the Queens County District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit agreed to the dismissal of the convictions of Armond McCloud Jr. and Reginald Cameron after concluding that both men falsely confessed during interrogations by Detective Gonzalez.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/19/2017
Last Updated: 9/10/2023
State:New York
County:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1990
Sentence:25 to life
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No