George Bell is suing New York City and eight police officers after spending nearly a quarter-century in jail and facing the death penalty for a crime he did not commit.
Bell was found guilty of capital murder in the shootings of an off-duty police officer and the owner of a check-cashing store in December 1996, which he confessed to after being apprehended days later. Bell’s conviction was overturned in 2021 after new evidence in the case led to the identification of additional suspects.
“Police and prosecutorial misconduct caused this tragedy,” according to the federal lawsuit. “A pressured confession, the fabrication of evidence, and the withholding of voluminous Brady information that made it evident that a local robbery ring known as “Speedstick,” not Mr. Bell had perpetrated the crime stained Mr. Bell’s investigation, trial, and conviction.”
There was political pressure to find a suspect in the death of the police officer. Charles Davis, the officer, worked security at Ira “Mike” Epstein’s Queens check-cashing store. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and police officials had said they “will not rest” until the double homicide is solved.
Giuliani promised that by Christmas, he would have found those responsible for the murder that occurred on December 21. According to George Bell’s lawyer, Richard Emery, Giuliani was “pandering to tabloids and communities that he thought would back him up and elect him.”
“At the time, crime was really serious,” Emery added. “He was attempting to rally support for a police force that was pursuing clearly fabricated prosecutions based on poor police work.”
When Bell was apprehended, the New York Daily News ran a front-page story about it. When he was 19 years old, the newspaper captured the adolescent in tears in the police station and dubbed him the “Crybaby Cop Killer.”
A full-page editorial in the New York Daily News demanded Bell’s execution. The New York Post dubbed a zoomed-in photo of Bell “the face of evil.” During an “intensive sweep throughout northwestern Queens,” “thousands of cars” were stopped, “thousands of summonses” were issued, and “hundreds of suspects” were questioned, according to the New York Times.
Despite the fact that members of the Speed Stick gang had previously been wanted for robberies, Bell and two other Black men were arrested for the robbery on December 26, 1996.
According to the NYPD, the suspects were three Black men who stood 5 feet 11 inches to 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 180, 185, and 190 pounds. Bell stood 5’10” tall, weighed 150 pounds, and had never been arrested. He was a stocker at Old Navy.
At the time, Bell’s co-defendant, Gary Johnson, was 22 years old and had no criminal record. According to the lawsuit, Rohan Bolt, a 35-year-old Caribbean restaurant owner, was charged with minor marijuana-related offenses years before his arrest for the double murder. Before that, he had never met Bell.
According to the lawsuit, NYPD detectives zeroed in on Bell as a suspect after a man known to authorities as a narcotics dealer implicated him in the crimes. According to Bell’s lawyers, the man who accused him was a friend who was aware that his girlfriend had slept with Bell.
While on probation for robbery and assault, police apprehended John Bigweh two days before Christmas for selling marijuana. Bigweh, who was about to be deported to Haiti and was being interrogated by detectives for two days, informed them that Bell and Johnson had requested his cooperation with the crime.
During a six-hour journey with one of the investigators, Bigweh’s description of the story changed several times, with or without his input.
“The cops were forced by the pressure and political atmosphere to pick a suspect who was convenient for them but not the proper one,” Richard Emery added.
“Of course, once they’ve decided on a suspect, they don’t bother looking at anyone else. They were just completely devoted to George. They never gave up, beating George into submission and forcing him to confess.”
According to the lawsuit, Bell was sick and had just taken NyQuil when he received a phone call from Bigweh tricking him into going to a police station to help a buddy who’d allegedly been arrested. When Bell arrived, he was arrested and taken to a different precinct, according to his lawyers, he was taken where he was interrogated by investigators and he broke down after being threatened and beaten by cops for several hours.
When Detective Louis Pia tugged on one of Bell’s braids, his hair was ripped from his scalp. Pia threatened to “put him in the fu**king hospital” by pressing a hockey stick against Bell’s neck and threatening to “use his skull like a hockey puck,” according to the lawsuit.
“Isn’t this police brutality?” you may ask. Bell is reported to have inquired.
“No, this is how we get things done,” stated Detective Richard Sica.
Bell’s Miranda rights were not read to him, and he was forced to sign a document waiving them. They denied his request for an attorney, and his mother, who had arrived at the precinct where he was arrested was told that Bell was not present and that they had no idea where he was.
According to Richard Emery, Bell’s conviction was based on racism. “The racism of it all was evident, and most surely the reality that the vast majority of the victims of erroneous convictions are Black guys,” he said. “If not blatant racial animosity, George was a victim of racial stereotyping.”
Physical evidence did not connect Bell to the crime. A witness who saw the suspects fleeing the scene and a jailhouse informant both testified against Bell. The witness initially declined to provide a sketch of the person he saw because it “could have been anyone,” and he “didn’t want the incorrect person picked up.”
The jailhouse informant, according to the lawsuit, distributed data that had already been made public by the media, including false reports, and he was also offered a way to avoid deportation.
According to the lawsuit, prosecutors are accused of withholding evidence that could have proven Bell’s innocence, including documentation that the NYPD suspected the Speedstick gang of the crimes. One of the members also boasted about the heist.
On multiple occasions, Bell’s public defense attempted but failed to obtain the evidence. Despite the fact that NYPD authorities informed the public that the gang was linked to it in May 1997, the assistant district attorneys denied the existence of exculpatory evidence in what appears to be an illegal violation of procedure.
In June 1999, a jury found Bell guilty of second-degree murder. He avoided the death penalty by being sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. The other two offenders received 50-year prison sentences.
A judge overturned the three men’s convictions in March 2021, stating that prosecutors’ handling of the case “leaves the distinct impression that the suppression of the [exonerating] information was not an isolated instance of misconduct, but part of a larger pattern of behavior that was calculated to deprive the defendants of fair trials, which is particularly egregious given that the death penalty was sought against 19-year-old George Bell.”
The district attorney’s office dropped all charges against Bell three months later, and Brad Leventhal and Charles Testagrossa, two assistant district attorneys who worked on Bell’s case, have since resigned. According to Bell’s lawyers, they should have been “disbarred, suspended, or otherwise penalized for their misbehavior.”
According to the lawsuit, “Bell experienced unfathomable loss and anguish as a result of the police actions and the City’s unconstitutional activities.” Bell is seeking $50 million in damages, as well as punitive penalties to be determined at trial.
“He’s a fantastic guy,” Emery said, “but he’s lost the lion’s share of his life if not more than half of it.” “We’re requesting a large sum of money from the city for railroading him in egregious ways since everyone at the time either knew or should have known that he was innocent.”