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Judge Orders Retrial for Johnny Hincapie, Convicted in ’90 Subway Killing

Justice Eduardo Padro ruled that new evidence presented at a hearing this year would have changed the outcome of the first trial in the death of Brian Watkins, a tourist from Utah.
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Johnny Hincapie on Tuesday after a judge threw out his conviction in the murder of Brian Watkins, a tourist from Utah, on a Manhattan subway platform. Credit Stephen Yang for The New York Times

A state judge on Tuesday ordered a new trial for a Queens man who was convicted of taking part in the 1990 killing of a tourist from Utah on a New York subway platform, a crime that provoked a public outcry and became a milestone in the city’s era of high crime and fear.

The man, Johnny Hincapie, broke down in tears and his family cheered when Justice Eduardo Padro announced his decision to throw out the conviction. Hours later, Mr. Hincapie posted bail and walked out of the criminal courthouse in Manhattan after a quarter-century in prison and embraced his parents, while a dozen relatives and friends applauded.

“I feel wonderful, wonderful — I feel free,” Mr. Hincapie said as his family surrounded him.

“It’s sad that it took 25 years for the truth to uncover itself,” he added. “It’s sad that they kept an innocent man in prison for so long because of a false confession that should never have taken place, but I thank God that now I can start to put all of this behind me.”

In his ruling, Justice Padro said he was convinced that new evidence presented during a hearing this year would have changed the outcome of the first trial. Three witnesses came forward and testified that Mr. Hincapie was not on the subway platform when the victim, Brian Watkins, was stabbed while trying to defend his family from muggers.

The killing of Mr. Watkins became a symbol of the pervasive and often random street violence that plagued New York during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when crack dealing was rampant and the city had more than 2,200 murders a year. Along with the 1989 rape and beating of a female jogger in Central Park, Mr. Watkins’s murder ignited a political uproar that compelled Mayor David N. Dinkins to expand the police force and to order a crackdown on crime.

It will be up to the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., whether to retry Mr. Hincapie, who has already served the minimum sentence for murder. Mr. Vance’s spokeswoman, Joan Vollero, said prosecutors were also considering appealing the ruling. “We remain committed to retrying the case, if necessary,” she said.

Mr. Hincapie’s lawyers, Ronald L. Kuby and Leah Busby, said Mr. Hincapie’s willingness to testify that his confession had been coerced, coupled with the testimony of new witnesses who say he was not present, made it unlikely their client would be convicted a second time.

“I don’t see how they can retry this case,” Mr. Kuby said. “The terrified, intimidated boy who confessed then is now a grown man who can explain his actions.”

Mr. Hincapie has spent 25 years, one month and three days in prison. He was eligible for parole this year, and has an exemplary prison record, having earned a master’s degree in theology. The parole board postponed a decision until Justice Padro had decided Mr. Hincapie’s motion to set aside the verdict.

The judge’s ruling came after lengthy hearings, starting in February, during which Mr. Hincapie testified that a detective had beaten a confession out of him and a previously unknown witness, Mariluz Santana, came forward to swear she had not seen Mr. Hincapie on the subway platform when the murder happened.

Mr. Watkins, a tourist from Utah visiting New York for the United States Open, was stabbed in the chest on Sept. 3, 1990, in a struggle with at least six young men who had tried to rob his family inside the Seventh Avenue subway station at 53rd Street. Some of the men later said they needed money to go dancing at the Roseland Ballroom.

Mr. Hincapie, now 43, was arrested the next day and confessed to taking part. He was one of seven young men convicted of felony murder at two separate trials. Under state law, everyone who takes part in a mugging can be held responsible for murder if a victim dies.

But Mr. Hincapie now maintains he gave a false confession after a detective beat him. He testified in February he was walking down an escalator to the platform when the murder occurred. He was looking for a friend and had tarried at the turnstiles to flirt with some girls, he said.

His story was buttressed by the testimony of Luis Montero, who testified he recalled Mr. Hincapie’s being with him at the turnstiles just before the commotion erupted on the platform below. The police arrested Mr. Montero on suspicion of taking part in the mugging as well, but later dropped charges against him. He never confessed.

Another man convicted in the attack, Anthony Anderson, took the stand and testified he did not remember Mr. Hincapie’s being on the platform when another teenager, Yul Gary Morales, stabbed Mr. Watkins in the chest.

Ms. Santana, a 45-year-old hospital worker, also corroborated Mr. Hincapie’s claim. Having read about the hearing, she voluntarily came forward this year and swore on the stand she had seen the murder but had not seen Mr. Hincapie among the men attacking the Watkins family.

Prosecutors from the district attorney’s office argued her testimony proved nothing. The crime scene was chaotic, and Ms. Santana had started to run as soon as the violence began; she might not have spotted everyone involved.

Eugene R. Hurley III, a senior Manhattan prosecutor, said in his closing argument that Mr. Hincapie’s story made no sense, because the escalator he claimed to have run down was going up at the time. He also emphasized that three other men convicted with Mr. Hincapie — Pascal Carpenter, Emiliano Fernandez and Ricardo Nova — all told the police he had participated in the robbery.

In his ruling, Justice Padro said there was not enough evidence to declare Mr. Hincapie innocent and dismiss the case. He noted the first jury had heard police testimony and had seen Mr. Hincapie’s videotaped confession.

But he wrote that the testimony of Ms. Santana, Mr. Montero and Mr. Anderson would have changed the outcome of the first trial. “All three witnesses indicate that Hincapie was not on the subway platform at the actual moment of the robbery of the Watkins family,” he wrote. “Each statement exculpates Mr. Hincapie.”

The judge also rejected the prosecution’s argument that Mr. Hincapie could have called the witnesses at his first trial and chose not to. The judge noted Ms. Santana had come forward only this year after reading news accounts of the hearing, while Mr. Montero and Mr. Anderson had legal reasons in 1990 for not making themselves available to testify. He said the case law regarding setting aside a verdict did not require all of the witnesses to be newly discovered, only that their statements be discovered after the trial.

Mr. Watkins’s parents were not in court and did not return a telephone message left at their home number.

Only two of the seven men convicted in the murder — Mr. Morales and Mr. Nova — remain in prison. Four others were recently granted parole, including Mr. Anderson and Mr. Carpenter, who came to court on Tuesday to support Mr. Hincapie.

Mr. Carpenter, who also spells his surname Charpentier, also said he did not see Mr. Hincapie among the teenagers who attacked the Watkins family. He said the strong-arm tactics the police had used to persuade him and the other defendants to confess were to blame for Mr. Hincapie’s conviction.

“You became concerned that your only way out of this precinct was to give the cops a story that they could use and give to the prosecutor,” he said.

For his part, Mr. Hincapie said his first order of business was to go to a restaurant and have a seafood dinner. He said during his long incarceration he had at times nursed “a desire for full reprisal and revenge.”

“I believed in the biblical imperative on an eye for an eye, that was my reality,” he added. “But I came to realize once I put my bitterness and angriness behind me that compassion was even more powerful. Shame on those individuals who did this to me, and shame on all those individuals who had knowledge of what happened to me. But I forgive them.”

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