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A notorious murder case that stunned New York City a quarter century ago took a dramatic turn in court today, as a judge vacated the conviction of a man who has served decades in prison for the crime.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Eduardo Padro granted Johnny Hincapie’s motion to have his conviction set aside, based on newly discovered evidence, reports Dateline producer Dan Slepian, who has followed this case for two years and was in court with Lester Holt for the decision.
Holt, who interviewed Hincapie in prison, and Slepian are putting together an upcoming Dateline hour about the case.
Slepian says Judge Padro intended to release Hincapie on his own recognizance. In court, the DA asked for bail. A spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office said it would consider its options for appeal. "We remain committed to re-trying the case, if necessary," the spokesperson added.
Hincapie was one of seven men convicted of murder in the 1990 stabbing death of Brian Watkins during a robbery on a Manhattan subway platform. He was 18 years old at the time of his arrest.
In a statement, the District Attorney's Office said: "We regret the fact that re-trying the case would subject the family of Mr. Watkins to testifying at another trial, reopening old wounds and forcing them to relive the horror of that night 25 years ago."
The Watkins case unfolded at a time when crime was at an all-time high in New York City. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has called the Watkins murder a “tipping point” that helped make New York City safer. After Watkins' murder, 6,000 new police officers were hired, and since then the city has experienced a reduction in crime that has continued to this day.
In hearings over the past several months, Hincapie said he was unaware of the plan to rob Watkins, was not on the platform at the time of the murder and that a detective coerced him into confessing. This spring, he was granted a new hearing in Manhattan Supreme Court after new evidence surfaced.
The Manhattan District Attorney's office defended the conviction, calling into question the credibility of Hincapie and other witnesses who testified on his behalf.