A black man who spent 24 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of double homicide is now suing New York City and a team of police officers for allegedly threatening him with the false confession that landed him behind bars .
George Bell’s conviction – and life sentence without parole – was thrown out in 2021 after new evidence surfaced proving his innocence. His attorney, Richard Emery, blamed Bell’s botched 1990s sentencing on a variety of factors, including biased media, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s poor criminal strategy, and the city’s flawed court system, saying that he targeted blacks and browns.
“It was a rush to judgment with the political forces behind that judgment,” Emery told The Daily Beast.
In a lawsuit filed June 2 and reviewed by The Daily Beast, Bell sought at least $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages. damages to be determined at trial.
In December 1996, Ira “Mike” Epstein and NYPD officer Charles Davis were killed in a robbery at a Queens check-cashing business, the complaint alleges. Epstein owned the business and Davis served as a security guard while off duty. Authorities immediately launched a “manhunt” for the killers, with Giuliani and NYPD officials swearing they “wouldn’t rest” until they found those responsible.
“[Giuliani] greatly flattered the tabloids and the communities that he believed would support and elect him. Of course he was right,” Emery said. (The New York Daily News regularly called Bell a “crybaby” murderer after his conviction.)
“The crime was very serious [at] this time. He was seeking to support a police force that was carrying out… patently false prosecutions based on poor police work.
The Daily Beast could not reach Giuliani for comment.
Although there was a local gang known as the “Speedstick” who had committed similar offenses to robbery-murder, police focused their attention on other suspects, the complaint says.
In December, a local drug dealer, John Bigwe, was arrested for selling cannabis. Police told him he would face serious consequences, including deportation to his home country of Haiti, if he did not cooperate with their investigation, according to the complaint. Bigwe implicated Bell, according to the complaint, because his girlfriend had previously had an affair with Bell. The complaint says police tricked Bell into going to jail to help a friend who had been arrested. There, Bell was violently questioned by officers, according to the complaint.
“[It was the] the pressure and the political environment that caused the cops to choose a suspect who was a convenient suspect for them, but not the right one,” Emery said. “And of course, once they’ve chosen a suspect, they don’t look at anyone else. They were just focused on George. … They never let go, they beat George into submission and forced a confession out of him.
Bell, 19 at the time, was charged with capital murder. He had no criminal record, and the complaint says officers questioning him did not read his rights to Miranda before his arrest.
The cops allegedly yelled in Bell’s face, ripped his hair out, vowed to “put him in the fucking hospital” and claimed he would never see his family again if he didn’t cooperate, according to the filing.
The complaint says no physical evidence ever linked Bell to the double homicide. But the evidence still pointed to the Speedstick gang before Bell went on trial, according to the lawsuit.
Emery told The Daily Beast that he felt Bell’s race played a role in the unfair treatment he received.
“The racism of it all was palpable and most certainly the fact that most of the victims of false convictions, an overwhelming number, are black men,” he said. “George was the victim of at least racial stereotyping, if not outright racial antipathy.”
The NYPD declined to comment on the matter.
At his trial in 1999, Bell was found guilty of the murders. Authorities offered him a plea deal that would allow him to avoid the death penalty if he confessed, but Bell maintained his innocence. The jury ultimately denied capital punishment and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. On June 29, 1999, New York Daily News reported that a jury had “spared whiny killer George Bell”.
After the Queens District Attorney’s Office formed its Conviction Integrity Unit in 2020, it discovered that a lot of evidence relating to Speedstick had been deliberately withheld at trial. According to the complaint, a member of the gang even admitted to participating in the murders in 1997. In 2021, Bell’s conviction was overturned and he was eventually fully cleared. Authorities simply called it an “honest mistake,” according to the complaint.
But that’s not an adequate explanation for Bell, now 44, who wants revenge after spending more than half his life in prison. After stints in several detention centers and accusations of being a snitch among other convicts, Bell “continued to press anyone who could help him,” according to his lawyer.
“He managed to win,” Emery said. “He knew he was innocent all along, and his family was very close to him and supported him one hundred percent.”
Along with Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt made false confessions in the murders. Their convictions in the murders were also overturned, The New York Times reported. Together, they served nearly 75 years in prison.