Case dropped against man jailed 25 years in tourist slaying

AP News
Posted: Jan 25, 2017 5:21 PM
Case dropped against man jailed 25 years in tourist slaying

NEW YORK (AP) — After spending a quarter-century in prison on a conviction that got overturned, Johnny Hincapie was waiting to hear whether he'd finally be cleared of suspicion in an infamous tourist killing.

He got both a yes and a no Wednesday. Prosecutors said they'd dismiss rather than retry the 1990 case, yet they emphasized they still think Hincapie was involved in a subway mugging that ended with the deadly stabbing of Utah tourist Brian Watkins as he tried to protect his parents.

But even if not declared innocent, Hincapie said he's "overjoyed."

"I can finally, now, put this behind me and not ever have to worry about this, looking back, ever again," the 44-year-old said, his voice breaking, as he left court with his family. He'd been freed since his conviction was tossed in 2015.

To Hincapie, who said he was beaten into a false confession as an 18-year-old Colombian immigrant, the case was a blatant injustice the legal system refused to acknowledge for decades. For prosecutors, it illustrated the difficulties of trying to get a decades-old, once-tossed conviction again.

"While we continue to believe that Hincapie's confessions were both voluntary and truthful" and he participated in the fatal attack, "it is unlikely that a new jury can be convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eugene Hurley III wrote in a court filing released Wednesday.

Witnesses' memories have faded, an important prosecution witness — Watkins' father — has died, and a new witness came forward to say Hincapie played no role in the attack, Hurley noted. Another witness and a co-defendant also have vouched in recent years that Hincapie wasn't involved.

Hincapie's lawyer, Ron Kuby, said prosecutors should have shown "at least some expression of uncertainty, of doubt, of humility" about the case.

Watkins' mother, Karen, declined to comment on the developments when reached by phone later Wednesday, saying she was only then learning of them.

The Watkinses were in New York from Provo, Utah, to see the U.S. Open tennis tournament. While waiting for a subway train to go to dinner, they were accosted by a group of youths determined to rob people for money to go out dancing, police said. One of the youths yelled, "It's killing time!" as they surged down into the subway station, witnesses said at the time.

Watkins' late father, Sherwin, was slashed and robbed of about $200; Karen Watkins was hit and kicked. As their 22-year-old son tried to defend her, he was stabbed in the chest, police said.

Still, he chased the attackers up two stairways before collapsing under a turnstile.

"Why did they do this to me?" he said, according to his father's testimony at Hincapie's trial. "We're just here to have a good time."

Coming a year after the 1989 rape of a woman known as the Central Park jogger, Watkins' death inked an image of New York as a city where crime was out of control. His death — one of more than 2,200 murders in 1990, compared to 335 last year — helped prompt then-Mayor David Dinkins to propose a program designed to increase police protection.

Hincapie wasn't accused of stabbing Watkins, but prosecutors argued the entire group of robbers bore responsibility for his death. Hincapie had confessed to going along with the holdup plan and grabbing Karen Watkins during the attack, according to court papers.

Hincapie soon disavowed his confession. He says he was a bystander who got mistakenly swept up in the case.

He and six other young men were convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Hincapie lost several rounds of appeals before the 2015 ruling that freed him.

Hincapie finished high school and earned bachelor's and master's degrees behind bars. He's since advocated for others challenging their convictions and has lobbied lawmakers to improve the criminal justice system.

His experience taught him "that compassion brings a lot of people together," he said.

"The same impact that was made on me, I want to make on so many other individuals."