One day in 2012, a year into my first real job, at the Innocence Project, my phone rang. It wasn’t uncommon for intake calls to accidentally find their way to my line. For desperate family members advocating for a loved one in prison, it didn’t always matter whom they spoke to—they just needed someone to hear them. On this day, it was a far more unlikely caller: a retired New York Police Department detective from Long Island named Pete Fiorillo.
Fiorillo told me at length about a case in Queens that he was certain had resulted in a wrongful conviction—and not just of one man but of three: George Bell, Gary Johnson, and Rohan Bolt. All three were Black; all three had been convicted of a botched robbery and murder at a check-cashing facility in Queens. The year was 1996, at the height of New York’s anti-crime crusades. The victims were the owner of the check-cashing facility and the off-duty NYPD officer providing security.
Fiorillo’s story struck me as persuasive, but since there was no testable DNA evidence, there wasn’t much the Innocence Project could do to help. Still, Fiorillo was undeterred, insisting that a good article about the case was needed. I decided to start investigating.
A year and a half later, in October 2014, The Nation published the results of that investigation in an article titled “These 3 Men Have Been Locked Up for Almost 20 Years. Are They Innocent?” In 3,100 words, I traced the ample evidence that Bell, Johnson, and Bolt were not responsible for the crime, as well as the multiple failures of justice along the way. The case had every hallmark of a wrongful conviction: the rushed, sloppy investigation to avenge the death of a police officer; a bombastic politician (then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani) promising the case’s swift resolution; the immediate focus on three Black men, two of them still essentially children; coerced confessions, which contained notably wrong facts about the crime; the absence of evidence tying any of the defendants to the crime; the use of an unreliable witness; the use of a jailhouse informant, who could only regurgitate the inaccurate coverage he’d read in the papers; and, as time would reveal, prosecutorial misconduct.
“The case,” as Fiorillo summarized in the article, “represents a total breakdown of the criminal justice system from the bottom to the top: the police that investigated this case; the DA that prosecuted the case; the judge that tried all three cases. They just didn’t have the courage to do the right thing.”
That courage, as I noted at the time, was still missing from the people with the power to overturn the convictions. While conviction integrity units had begun popping up in prosecutors’ offices across the country to review claims of innocence, the borough of Queens, with its 2.2 million people, still lacked such a unit. “For Bell, Bolt and Johnson,” I lamented, “this means their claims of innocence will likely continue to fall on deaf ears.”
For the next five years, that’s pretty much what happened. But then, in January 2020, a change: Melinda Katz, the newly seated Queens district attorney, launched a conviction integrity unit, which began to investigate the case. It discovered, among other things, evidence showing that a member of a gang known as Speedstick confessed to his role in the robbery and murders, as well as mental health records indicating that a key witness had been experiencing hallucinations at the time of his testimony.
Attorneys for all three men had asked multiple times for the evidence that has now come to light. The Queens district attorney’s office had responded, repeatedly, that no such evidence existed. In fact, the DA’s office was fully aware of this information before the three convictions, but it tried the cases anyway, seeking the death penalty against Bell and ultimately, stealing 24 years of his, Johnson’s, and Bolt’s lives.
On the basis of this long-hidden evidence, the Queens DA and defense lawyers for the three men filed a joint motion asking the court to vacate all three convictions and set the men free. On March 5, a judge did just that, declaring, “It astounds me and shocks my conscience that…constitutional violations of this magnitude can happen in any prosecution, much less the prosecution in a capital case in which the former district attorney was seeking the death penalty [for] a 19-year-old man.”
That same day, almost a quarter century after they entered the prison, Bell, Johnson, and Bolt walked out, fists raised triumphantly in the air. Though the fight for a full exoneration continues, the three men are finally where they belong: free and surrounded by the people they love.
“For the past 24 years, I rose each day to the view of prison cell bars, and would say to myself, ‘Today is the day I will find the key,’” Bell told the court the day of his release. “Today is the day I am going home!”