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NYC judge slams prosecutor's office behind the wrongful homicide convictions of three men

(CNN) Three men were released from prison on Friday after the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in the Queens, New York, District Attorney's Office found that they had been wrongfully convicted of double homicide.

George Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt were found guilty in the 1996 murders of Ira "Mike" Epstein and off-duty NYPD Officer Charles Davis during the armed robbery of a cash-checking store.

"Today is the day I found the key. Today is the day, today is the day, today is the day, I am going home," Bell said in a video conference from Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, with Johnson and Bolt by his side.

The men were released on their own recognizance and are expected back in court June 4 for an update on whether they will be retried to fully exonerated.

Queens Supreme Court Justice Joseph Zayas, who on Friday vacated the convictions, harshly criticized prosecutors for trying to defend the actions of trial prosecutor Charles Testagrossa.

"The District Attorney's Office deliberately withheld from the defense credible information of third-party guilt that is evidence that others may have committed these crimes. This exculpatory information was in the prosecution's possession, and had in fact been investigated and documented by the lead prosecutor at Mr. Bell's trial," Zayas said.

Testagrossa no longer works in the Queens District Attorney's Office, but is currently an executive assistant district attorney for investigations with the Nassau County District Attorney's Office.

From left: George Bell, Rohan Bolt and Gary Johnson walk outside after being released from the Green Haven Correctional Facility on March 5, 2021.

Trial prosecutor's statement

In a statement sent to CNN, Testagrossa says throughout his career "I have disclosed all exculpatory material of which I was aware and I did so in this case as well. ...

"In over forty years as a prosecutor I have never before been accused of prosecutorial misconduct," he said. "I have always believed that all parties in a trial, the victims and their families and the defendants and their families deserve fairness and justice."

Testagrossa said spoke several times with the Queens DA's Conviction Integrity Unit during the reinvestigation.

"In this matter, there was no hearing and thus no sworn testimony," he said in the statement. "I was not asked to testify to address the questions raised or to submit an affidavit. The only record was the filings of the defense and the response by the DA's office. This was the record upon which the judge based his remarks."

DA says evidence was withheld

Current Queens DA Melinda Katz and the lead prosecutor with the CIU, Bryce Benjet, previously defended the prosecutor's actions by saying it was not intentional.

Katz said that after a CIU's nearly yearlong investigation, they had found that evidence favorable to the defense had not been turned over, which is known as a Brady violation.

The evidence consisted of medical records showing that a witness at their trials suffered from a mental illness that caused him to hallucinate, and documents pointing to a gang member who had implicated himself and others in the murders.

"It astounds me and shocks my conscience that even in 1997, 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 of a 19-year-old man," the judge said.

Zayas said that he had "lost many nights of sleep" since receiving this case.

The Nation reported that during the citywide search for the killers, then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani suggested the death penalty. When the men were arrested, District Attorney Richard A. Brown had sought the death penalty for Bell.

"George was put on trial for his life and fortunately, the jury did not impose that ultimate punishment and as a result, George is alive to see this day," one of their attorneys, Marc Wolinsky, said. "If the jury heard this evidence, they would have been acquitted. ... The prosecutors acted in bad faith."

"This has been a 24-year journey traveled by themselves and all who love and support them," said Rita Dave, another attorney on their case. "Time is what life is measured by. So, the loss of time is equivalent to life lost. But today also begins the long road of recovery, rebuilding their lives, rebuilding from what was stolen from them in lost time with family and in their communities."

Bell, who was 19 at the time of his arrest, was sentenced to life without parole. Bolt and Johnson, then 35 and 21, respectively, both received 50 years to life.

While Bell, Johnson and Bolt, now aged 45, 46 and 59, respectively, were released on their own recognizance on Friday, prosecutors have asked to continue investigating the case.