Two weeks after having his 1990 murder conviction set aside, Johnny Hincapie is not exactly a free man. He is out on $1 bail, waiting to learn whether Manhattan prosecutors will try him again, with immigration issues tied to the criminal case hanging over his head. But after 25 years behind bars, he is home with his family in Queens—and tonight his story will be broadcast into millions of other homes. A 9 p.m. ET Dateline episode on NBC called “Tipping Point” will chronicle Hincapie’s arrest, prosecution and quest for freedom, which journalist Bill Hughes first reported in City Limits’ pages in 2010.
Hincapie was one of seven men convicted of a role in the September 2, 1990 stabbing death of Utah tourist Brian Watkins in the subway station at Seventh Avenue and 53rd Street as he defended his mother from a group of teenage thieves.
The slaying became national news, coming to symbolize the alarming level of violence in New York City at the time. It set the stage for political and policy changes in the city that contributed to the city’s dramatic drop in crime later in the decade.
Hincapie confessed to being present at the killing, but later claimed that his admission was coerced—that he was not on the subway platform when the attack commenced and that evidence to that effect had been ignored in his first trial. Hughes’ reporting for City Limits indicated that other aspects of the case against Hincapie, like Brian’s mother Karen Watkins’ identifying him in a police line-up, were questionable.
A synopsis of the episode indicates that Hughes’ article attracted the attention of former New York State Parole Commissioner Robert Dennison, who now devotes himself to helping people he believes have been wrongfully convicted, and noted defense attorney Ron Kuby, who with his associate Leah Busby worked to get Hincapie the hearings that led earlier this month to his conviction being thrown out.
Manhattan prosecutors, who contended that Hincapie was lying and had changed his story over time, subpoenaed Hughes’ notes and other reporting material last year. A judge later ruled that much of that material was protected by the state’s shield law, although Hughes was compelled to turn over some of his work for the judge, Eduardo Padro to review.
Padro on October 6 rejected Kuby’s motion for a declaration of “actual innocence,” but did find that enough new evidence had surfaced to warrant tossing Hincapie’s 1991 conviction. He has set November 9 as a deadline for prosecutors to decide whether to retry Hincapie, who had been serving a sentence of 25 years to life.