The decision this week by Judge Eduardo Padró to free Johnny Hincapie and order a new trial was brave and correct. Hincapie, a 43 year-old Colombian from Queens served 25 years in state prison while maintaining his innocence and working to prove it. He was freed this week into the loving embrace of a family that stood by him and never gave up.
Many news reports and accounts of the story mention the climate in New York City at the time of the convictions of 7 young men – all black and Latino. Only one of the young men stabbed Brian Watkins, a tourist from Utah in town with his parents for the US Open. Under the felony murder law, all 7 were sentenced to the maximum – 25 years by Judge Edward Torres.
In 1990, when this crime took place, there had been over 2,000 murders by the beginning of September. The previous year 5 young men of color were arrested for raping a jogger in Central Park. The high rate of crime in the city allowed its citizens to applaud tough law enforcement. The 80’s had already put us in the coma of mass incarceration.
Hincapie always claimed that his “confession” was coerced by detectives who interrogated and beat him for over 9 hours. A recent documentary on the 5 men in the Central Park case documents the same interrogation tactics. The men in that case had their convictions overturned eventually after serving time in prison for a crime they did not commit. The city settled a 41 million dollar lawsuit with the 5 men last year.
In today’s climate of relatively low crime and high rates of incarceration, advocates and law enforcement leaders are reexamining interrogation tactics and general policing practices.
Still, it takes courage to right a wrong.
In his decision Judge Padró put due process first. Other judges have preferred not to open old wounds.
But, Hincapie is only one of many men and women who were victims of a climate of fear and a city in a desperate frenzy to lock up our youth and throw away the keys. We applauded those actions without questioning an individual’s right to due process.
Thankfully we are waking up from the coma and we are raising our collective consciousness. We encourage the DA, Cy Vance, to also be brave and not retry Hincapie for a crime that someone else committed and that he served 25 years for.