George Bell, who spent over two decades behind bars for a double murder he did not commit, has been awarded a historic $17.5 million settlement from New York City. The payout is the largest settlement ever granted by the city for a wrongful conviction, according to Bell’s lawyer, Richard Emery, and city data.
Bell was convicted along with Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt in 1999 for the 1996 murders of a check-cashing store owner and an off-duty police officer working security in East Elmhurst, Queens. He was just 19 years old when he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Convictions Overturned After Judge Finds Egregious Prosecutorial Misconduct
In 2021, Queens Judge Joseph A. Zayas threw out the convictions of all three men after finding that prosecutors deliberately withheld exculpatory evidence that could have exonerated them. The judge also determined that the district attorney’s office made false statements during the original trials.
“These three defendants were undoubtedly wronged by the district attorney’s office’s misconduct,” Judge Zayas wrote in his damning decision. He added that prosecutors “completely abdicated [their] truth-seeking role in these cases.”
Physical evidence did not link the men to the killings. Documents that surfaced later showed police had connected the murders to members of a robbery gang operating in the area at the time.
DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit Reviewed Cases for Wrongful Convictions
The exonerations were prompted by newly elected Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz‘s establishment of a Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate potential wrongful convictions. When taking office in 2019, Katz said she could not stand by the convictions.
“The district attorney’s office deliberately withheld from the defense credible information of third-party guilt,” Judge Zayas stated in his ruling overturning the convictions.
Bell Always Maintained His Innocence
Although Bell initially confessed to involvement under questioning, he quickly recanted and spent over two decades fighting to clear his name.
“George’s torture was unimaginably severe and horrifying vindicates him and his never-ending quest for justice,” said Emery of the record settlement.
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Despite the setback of his wrongful conviction as a teenager, Bell displayed perseverance and grit through his 24-year incarceration. The settlement acknowledges the immense suffering and injustice he endured.
Largest Payout Yet, But More Settlements Expected
At $17.5 million, Bell’s settlement with New York City exceeds any previous award for a wrongful conviction according to city records. He previously reached a separate $4.4 million settlement with New York state.
However, Bell’s settlement likely will not be the last payout related to this grave miscarriage of justice. Lawsuits filed by Johnson and Bolt also remain pending.
Case Mirrors Rash of Wrongful Convictions
Bell’s exoneration comes amid increased scrutiny of wrongful convictions, especially those involving young Black men. Numerous similar cases have emerged in recent years across New York state and the country:
- Shamel Capers was freed in 2022 after 8 years imprisoned for a murder in Queens he did not commit.
- Earlier in 2022, a Queens man was released after nearly 8 years jailed for a friend’s death he insisted he did not cause.
- In 2021, three other convictions were overturned related to the same 1996 Queens murders as Bell’s case. The men spent over 20 years in prison before being cleared and released.
- Also last year, a former school guard received a $6.25 million settlement for a wrongful conviction in Queens where exculpatory evidence was allegedly withheld.
- Other recent New York City exonerations have resulted in multi-million dollar settlements for years wrongfully spent behind bars.
Pressure on Prosecutors to Avoid Misconduct
The proliferation of overturned convictions has placed mounting pressure on prosecutors to avoid misconduct like concealing exculpatory evidence.
Some district attorneys, like Melinda Katz in Queens, are establishing Conviction Integrity Units to identify and correct past injustices. However, experts say more systemic reforms are needed to align incentives so seeking convictions does not outweigh truth-seeking.
There are also calls for increased accountability measures and penalties when prosecutors are found to have engaged in misconduct resulting in wrongful convictions. New York City’s record $17.5 million settlement with George Bell will likely intensify scrutiny around such proposals.
Although Bell can never get back the 24 years he unjustly spent in prison, the historic settlement brings some long-overdue compensation and validation after his unimaginable suffering. However, it also serves as a sobering reminder that the scales of justice are not yet balanced.