After spending almost a quarter-century in jail and facing the death penalty for a crime he did not commit, George Bell is suing New York City and eight police officers.
Bell was found guilty of capital murder in the December 1996 shootings of an off-duty police officer and the owner of a check-cashing store, which he confessed to after he was apprehended days after the crimes. Bell’s conviction was reversed in 2021 after new evidence in the case led to other suspects.
Bell is now seeking at least $50 million in damages for the near quarter-century he spent in prison as a result of a mistake.
According to the federal lawsuit received by Atlanta Black Star, “police and prosecutorial misconduct caused this tragedy.” “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 police officer’s death. The officer, Charles Davis, worked security at a Queens check-cashing store owned by Ira “Mike” Epstein.
Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and police authorities have stated that they “will not rest” until the double homicide is solved. Giuliani promised that by Christmas, he would find those guilty for the murder on December 21.
Giuliani was “pandering to tabloids and communities that he thought would back him up and elect him,” according to Bell’s lawyer, Richard Emery.
“At the time, crime was really serious,” Emery added. “He was attempting to rally support for a police force that was pursuing…clearly fraudulent prosecutions based on poor police work.”
When Bell was captured, the New York Daily News published a front-page story. The newspaper recorded the adolescent in tears in the police station when he was 19 years old, and dubbed him the “Crybaby Cop Killer.” A full-page editorial in the Daily News called for Bell’s execution. A zoomed-in photo of Bell was dubbed “the face of evil” by the New York Post.
The New York Times stated that “thousands of cars” were stopped, “thousands of summonses” were issued, and “hundreds of suspects” were questioned during a “intensive sweep throughout northwestern Queens.”
On Dec. 26, 1996, Bell and two other Black men were arrested for the robbery, despite the fact that members of the Speed Stick gang had been wanted for prior robberies.
The suspects were identified as three Black individuals ranging in height from 5 feet 11 to 6 feet 3 and weighing 180, 185, and 190 pounds, according to the NYPD. Bell was 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed 150 pounds, and had never been arrested. He worked at Old Navy as a stocker.
Gary Johnson, Bell’s co-defendant at the time, was 22 years old and had no criminal record. The suit claims that Rohan Bolt, a 35-year-old Caribbean restaurant owner, had been charged with minor marijuana-related offences years before his arrest for the double murder. Before that, he had never met Bell.
According to the lawsuit, NYPD detectives zoomed in on Bell as a suspect after he was implicated in the crimes by a man known to authorities as a narcotics dealer. Bell’s lawyers claim the man who accused him was a buddy who was aware that his girlfriend had slept with Bell.
While on probation for robbery and assault offenses, police nabbed John Bigweh for selling marijuana two days before Christmas. Bigweh, who was facing deportation to Haiti and was being interrogated by detectives for two days, informed them Bell and Johnson had requested for his cooperation with the crime.
Bigweh’s description of the story changed multiple times during a six-hour journey with one of the investigators, 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,” 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.
Bell was sick and had just taken NyQuil when he got a phone call from Bigweh tricking him into going to a police station to help a buddy who’d allegedly been arrested, according to the lawsuit.
When Bell arrived, he was arrested and taken to a different precinct, where his lawyers claim he was probed by investigators and broke down after being threatened and beaten by the cops for many hours.
Bell’s hair was allegedly torn off his scalp when Detective Louis Pia allegedly tugged one of his braids. According to the lawsuit, Pia threatened to “put him in the f——— hospital” by pressing a hockey stick against Bell’s neck and threatening to “use [his] skull like a hockey puck.”
“Isn’t this police brutality?” you might ask. Bell is said to have inquired.
“No, this is how we get things done,” allegedly stated Detective Richard Sica.
Bell’s Miranda rights were not read to him and he was compelled to sign a paper relinquishing them. They turned down his pleas for an attorney and his mother, who had arrived at the precinct where he was arrested only to be told that Bell was not there and that they had no idea where he was.
Bell’s conviction, according to Emery, 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 stated. “If not blatant racial animosity, George was a victim of racial stereotyping.”
Bell was not linked to the crime based on physical evidence. Bell was testified against by a witness who observed the suspects fleeing the scene and a jailhouse snitch. The witness initially refused to offer a sketch of the person he saw because it “could have been anyone,” and he “didn’t want the incorrect person to be picked up.”
According to the lawsuit, the jailhouse informant transmitted data that had already been publicized by the media, including false reports, and he was also offered a way to avoid deportation.
Prosecutors are accused of suppressing information that could have proven Bell’s innocence, including documentation that the NYPD suspected the Speedstick gang of the crimes, according to the lawsuit. One of the members boasted about the heist as well.
Bell’s public defense had tried unsuccessfully to obtain the evidence on multiple occasions. Even though NYPD authorities notified the public the gang was related to it in May 1997, the assistant district attorneys denied the exculpatory evidence existed, in what appears to be an unlawful violation of procedure.
Bell was found guilty of second-degree murder by a jury in June 1999. He avoided the death penalty by being sentenced to life in jail without the possibility of parole. The other two offenders were each sentenced to 50 years in prison.
In March 2021, a judge vacated the three men’s convictions, saying 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.”
Three months later, the district attorney’s office withdrew all charges against Bell, and Brad Leventhal and Charles Testagrossa, two assistant district attorneys who worked on Bell’s case, have since resigned.
They should have been “disbarred, suspended, or otherwise penalized for their misbehavior,” according to Bell’s lawyers.
The lawsuit claims that “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 addition to punitive penalties, which will be determined at trial.
“He’s a fantastic guy,” Emery remarked, “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.”