Johnny Hincapie was convicted of a role in the 1990 murder of tourist Brian Watkins based on a confession he says was coerced.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Johnny Hincapie was convicted of a role in the 1990 murder of tourist Brian Watkins based on a confession he says was coerced.

It is still difficult to fathom the sheer volume of bloodshed and violence that plagued New York City in 1990. The carnage skewed toward senseless violence: children hit by stray bullets, drug killings at the peak of the crack epidemic and random robberies gone wrong. With 2,245 homicides that year—a record unsurpassed except by the Sept. 11 attacks—it averaged out to more than six killings a day. By contrast, the NYPD recorded 471 homicides last year. But one homicide, the killing of Brian Watkins, a 22-year-old Mormon tourist from Utah, was probably the tipping point in New York’s history of violence and mayhem.

Watkins was on a subway platform with his parents, brother and sister-inlaw when they were attacked by a group of six or eight teenagers on Sept. 2, 1990. During a scuffle in which his father was slashed with a box cutter and his mother was kicked in the face, Watkins attempted to intervene and was fatally stabbed in the chest.

It was the murder that prompted the infamous front-page headline aimed at former mayor David Dinkins, “Dave, Do Something!” Beneath that screaming, full-page plea were headlines for three different columns: “It’s Time to Take Off the White Gloves” by former mayor Ed Koch, “We Are Captives in Our Own Homes” by columnist Ray Kerrison and “New York’s Streets Are Awash in Blood,” by Jerry Nachman.

The political pressure to round up and convict what was known at the time as the “wolf pack” responsible for the killing was enormous. A small army of detectives was dispatched, several of whom had worked the Central Park jogger case 17 months earlier.

Within 24 hours, charges were lodged against eight suspects. All but one gave videotaped confessions. The one who did not was let off. The rest got 25 to life. In the aftermath, Dinkins set about hiring what would amount to 6,000 new police officers triggering a downward trend in crime that subsequent mayor Rudy Giuliani continues to take credit for. Of the seven convicted men, one maintains to this day that he is innocent. He contends that he was beaten, lied to and coerced by detectives into admitting a minor role in the robbery with the promise that he would be let out of jail and driven home the next day if he cooperated.

Twenty years later, Johnny Hincapie, now 38, says he alone is unjustly paying the price for the murder that made New York safe. Having spent more than half his life in prison, Hincapie knows full well that when he comes up for parole in a few years, the last thing a parole board will want to hear is a claim of innocence. “I understand that, but I’ve made up my mind,” Hincapie said during a recent interview in Sing Sing prison. “I lied when I gave that confession, and look where it got me. I’m not lying again. I’m going to keep on fighting to clear my name. There is no way I’m ever going to admit that I did something I didn’t do again.”

The Bloodiest Year in New York’s History

The year 1990 began in a manner that grimly foreshadowed what was to follow. In an eight-hour period between 7:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and 3:30 a.m. the following day, 13 people were violently killed. Ten victims were shot to death, two were killed in vehicular homicides, and one man was beaten to death.

As January wore on, the bodies began piling up. In Brooklyn a 15-year-old boy was shot to death for refusing to return a high-five greeting from another teenager. On the Upper East Side, a woman was crushed to death by a van whose driver had pulled up next to her to snatch her purse from his moving vehicle.

The month ended on a particularly grisly note. The body of a 12-year-old boy was found wrapped in several garbage bags in the woods near the Hutchinson River Parkway on Jan. 29. The boy had been kidnapped the previous month on his way to school. The kidnappers had sent the boy’s mother a package containing a 2-inch section of her son’s index finger and a cassette tape of the boy pleading for his life and begging his family to pay the ransom.

February followed with one pointless homicide after another: drive-by shootings, the bias killing of a gay man in Staten Island and the fatal stabbing of a man in a Queens subway over a leather jacket.

March drove the statistics dramatically higher after a jilted boyfriend doused the only stairway leading into and out of the Happy Land Social Club with a dollar’s worth of gasoline and lit a fire that killed 87 people. Ironically, his exgirlfriend, who worked as a coat check clerk, was one of six people who escaped the Bronx fire.

In late March the NYPD released statistics citing the previous year as setting the all-time record for homicides, 1,905. The nationwide rash of people killed over a pair of sneakers led Time magazine to run a cover story titled “Your Sneakers or Your Life.”

As spring turned to summer, several bloody patterns emerged. Cabdrivers were targeted by murderous thieves, who would go on to kill 35 drivers by year’s end. Throughout the summer, nearly a dozen children were killed by stray bullets. A total of 75 children under the age of 16 were killed in 1990, 39 of them by gunshots. Throughout the year, police shot 106 people, 41 of them fatally. By the time September arrived, New Yorkers were fatigued and fed up.

A Collision of lives

The members of the Watkins family were all avid tennis fans and came out east to see the U.S. Open, which, coincidentally, was a favorite pastime of Mayor Dinkins. After spending all day on Sunday, Sept. 2, watching tennis, members of the family returned to their hotel room at the Hilton on West 53rd Street. Brian’s brother had a craving for Moroccan food that night, so the family asked a hotel employee to recommend a place for them to go. He told them about a spot in Greenwich Village and pointed them toward the subway station at 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue.

Meanwhile, a train was making its way from Queens loaded with 40 or 50 teenagers heading toward the nightclub Roseland, located on West 52nd, for a night of dancing featuring a Latin DJ. Johnny Hincapie, an 18-year-old from Bayside who was about to enter his final year of high school, was with several friends. His mother testified that he was flush with cash, since she paid him $150 per week to help her with an accessory business she ran.

But part of the group did not have the $15 cover charge to get into the club and hatched a plan to “grab a wallet” from someone, as one of the co-defendants put it. After the train arrived at Seventh Avenue, the whole group of approximately 50 people left the station and headed toward the club, while the smaller group lacking cash lagged behind and went back into the station. One jumped the turnstile and opened the exit gate, and the group ran down to the subway platform.

At the moment the group was sneaking into the subway, Brian Watkins was buying tokens for his family. Seasoned New Yorkers might have thought better of following such a group down into a subway in 1990, but that’s exactly what the Watkins family did.

They went down to the platform and stood in a semicircle near the middle of the platform. The mugging was fast and furious. Because of the way they were standing and the speed of the attack, each family member saw what happened from a different perspective. They all testified that they heard a loud commotion and then suddenly they were set upon.

Brian’s father, Sherwin, was knocked to the ground and slashed with a box cutter. His front pocket was torn open and he sustained a deep wound near the top and back of his leg. Brian’s mother said she was grabbed by the hair, hunched over and kicked in the face and chest. When Brian saw this, he lunged toward her and was stabbed in the chest by Yull Gary Morales, who confessed to the crime but claimed Watkins lunged into his knife. During a recent interview at Green Haven Correctional Facility, Morales hung his head and called the events of that night the worst decisions he ever made in his life.

Someone pulled a roll of bills containing about $200 from Sherwin Watkins’ torn pants and yelled, “We got it!” The group ran back up the stairs.

According to Hincapie, while all this was taking place, he was up on the sidewalk talking to two girls and waiting for a friend to emerge from the subway. He claims he had no knowledge of the plan to mug somebody and that he went down into the station to look for the friend, Anthony Nicholson, who Hincapie maintains was holding his money because he was wearing tight designer jeans with no hip pockets. Hincapie says he ran from the station when he saw the group that had attacked the Watkinses running out. Nicholson had apparently left for Roseland with the initial group and was never charged.

Brian ran after the group, unaware that his pulmonary artery was severed. He collapsed on the first landing near the token booth. The first police officers to arrive at the scene carried Watkins up the stairs to the street. He was then placed in an ambulance and driven to St. Vincent’s Hospital. According to trial testimony, he died in the ambulance. His parents sued the city for $100 million, claiming the long ride to a hospital more than 40 blocks away and the unsafe subways contributed to Brian’s death. After receiving assurances from Giuliani that they would be dealt with fairly, the family was forced to settle, unhappily, in 1998 for $300,000.

Rounding Up the Suspects

Two men who were drinking beer on the sidewalk near the subway entrance, a locksmith and a shoe shiner, came forward several hours after the attack and told police they had witnessed the group exit, re-enter, then run out of the subway station. They claimed they went down the stairs and saw Watkins. The men said they got nervous and left. Detectives later took the two men to Roseland, and they walked through the club, pointing out two suspects. Other detectives brought the extremely distraught Watkins family from the hospital to a street near the nightclub, where they were asked to view suspects from inside a police car.

All the patrons were forced to exit the club through one door, and between identifications made by the family and the two witnesses, police detained approximately eight suspects for questioning, several of whom were released. Hincapie was not detained and questioned in that initial group. Through the questioning of the initial suspects, detectives got Hincapie’s name from his best friend, Emiliano Fernandez, who was part of the crew from Flushing and was picked up carrying an orange box cutter the day after the murder.

During a recent interview in the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, Fernandez said he doesn’t remember what he told the detectives; nor can he say with any certainty whether Hincapie was in on the robbery, although Fernandez admits his own involvement.

Detectives went to Hincapie’s house at about 9 p.m. the following night. According to all testimony, they walked in without a warrant and started asking if Hincapie lived there and was at home. The detectives testified they struck up a conversation with a family friend who was standing in front of the house when they arrived, then followed him inside, assuming they were invited in because he held the door open when they followed him. Hincapie was upstairs watching television. He came down as detectives were informing his mother that there had been a homicide in the subway the night before and they needed to ask Hincapie a few questions about it.

She asked if he needed a lawyer, and one of the detectives asked her how old her son was. She told them he had just turned 18, and the detective lied to her, saying, “If he’s 18, he doesn’t need a lawyer.” In a panic, his mother dialed the telephone numbers of two lawyers she knew. She was not aware that the telephone company had suspended her outgoing service because of an outstanding bill and thought that they simply weren’t answering. Hincapie, his mother and others who were present said a detective grabbed Hincapie by the arm and led him to a car. The detectives all deny ever touching him and asserted he was not technically under arrest until several hours later.

Hincapie was taken to the Midtown North police station and questioned by a series of detectives. According to him, one detective cursed at him, shoved him, slapped him and slammed his head into a desk, while another played good cop. He said he was told that his best friend (and later fellow co-defendant), Fernandez, had given up his name and was in another room telling detectives that Hincapie was involved in the crime and that the only way he was ever going to see his family again was by signing a confession.

He said he was then promised that if he signed a confession admitting he played a minor role in the mugging, they would drive him home in the morning, and he’d be freed. Otherwise he would face a murder charge and never see his family again. Hincapie was picked up by police at roughly 9:30 p.m. By around midnight, he had broken down and agreed to sign a confession. Only then was he read his Miranda rights, according to the testimony of the detectives who took his statement. After signing a confession that was written out by detectives, he was videotaped confirming the details of the confession.

Four of Hincapie’s seven co-defendants who agreed to be interviewed for this article told similar stories of abuse, threats and false promises during their interrogations. Every detective who testified during their trials denied those allegations and described their conversations with the suspects with words like polite, cordial, and relaxed.

Former New York City police commissioner William Bratton had taken over as the head of the city’s Transit Police Department five months before the Watkins homicide. In March of this year, he left his job as police chief in Los Angeles and joined the private security consulting firm Altegrity Inc. as its executive chairman. When asked whether he thought the allegations that the suspects were abused had any merit, Bratton replied, “I do not, and I doubt them very much. My recollection of that case is that they did an outstanding job, and from my perspective, that was a very good piece of police work. There were no allegations of that nature made at that time to the best of my recollection, and to bring them up 20 years later, well, it’s pretty convenient.”

The detectives got Hincapie to admit two key things: first, that he took part in the robbery and second, that he knew his friend Fernandez had a weapon. Although they told him the exact opposite information, by securing those two elements in his confession, they were able to charge him with second-degree murder. New York and 45 other states have felony murder statutes that allow defendants who knowingly take part in a crime that results in a homicide to be charged with murder whether they had any direct participation in the killing or not.

The Psychology of False Confessions

In recent decades, powerful evidence has emerged suggesting that the training law enforcement officials receive frequently biases them toward prejudging innocent suspects as guilty and coercing them into making false confessions.

When Charles Lindbergh’s son was kidnapped in 1932, about 200 people falsely confessed their involvement. More recently, in New York State, there were the cases of Marty Tankleff and Jeffrey Deskovic, who, in separate incidents, were both manipulated by lying detectives into confessing they had committed murder as teenagers. Tankleff spent 17 years in prison before getting his conviction vacated, and Deskovic lost 16 years of his life. Both men have become vocal advocates for the wrongfully convicted and the reform of investigative tactics. Perhaps most infamously in New York, there is the Central Park jogger case, in which five teenagers gave detailed confessions to a brutal rape. On the basis of their confessions and with no forensic evidence, they were all convicted and served between 6 and 13 years in prison before the real rapist, whose DNA matched evidence collected from the crime, came forward and confessed he had acted alone.

Saul Kassin is one of the leading experts in the psychology behind false confessions and has done extensive research examining the ease with which innocent people can be made to falsely admit guilt. He cites statistics from the Innocence Project that conclude that nearly 25 percent of the former inmates the organization has worked to free had falsely admitted their guilt.

Many law enforcement agencies train detectives with the book Criminal Interrogations and Confessions, first published in 1962, which lays out nine techniques for extracting confessions. These include isolating the suspect in a small room to increase anxiety, strongly accusing the suspect of guilt and lying about evidence, then minimizing the crime and its consequences, pretending to befriend the suspect and put him or her at ease about confessing.

One flaw Kassin sees is that detectives frequently make up their minds about a suspect’s guilt, then drive relentlessly until they secure confessions. “The purpose of interrogation is therefore not to discern the truth, determine if the suspect committed the crime, or evaluate his denials,” Kassin wrote. “Rather police are trained to interrogate only those suspects whose culpability they ‘establish’ on the basis of their initial investigation.”

The Case Against Hincapie

After he signed and videotaped his confession, Hincapie was placed in a series of lineups that were viewed by the Watkins family and the two eyewitnesses— the men who had been drinking on the sidewalk. None of the six witnesses positively identified him as being part of the group that committed the robbery. In one lineup, Karen Watkins, Brian’s mother, picked out Hincapie as someone who “looked vaguely familiar,” but when asked to identify him in the courtroom during the trial, she could not. Each of the four family members used the words similar and familiar to describe a total of 27 fillers—the lineup members who were not suspects. The confession and the “vaguely familiar” identification made up the sum total of the evidence against Hincapie.

Before Johnny Hincapie went to trial, the Manhattan district attorney’s office divided the group of eight co-defendants into two groups of four. Hincapie was tried along with Fernandez, Ricardo Nova and Pascal Carpenter.

The other four co-defendants included a man named Ricardo Lopez, who, during his videotaped confession, specifically told officers the name and number of the men involved. More important, he clearly recalled that Hincapie and another man named Kevin were not part of the robbery. That man, Kevin Mouton, was questioned and released.

The transcript of Lopez’s confession reads:

A. When we got out we … went upstairs. Then a—that whole bunch of people like (Indicating.) there was 60 of us, and 50 of them left, (Indicating.) and the ones that need money stood there, but two of them left.

Q. Okay.

A. And that’s like it was eight of us.

Q. Who was there then?

A. It was Rocstar, Emilio, Score [Carpenter], Anthony, a—who else? A—what’s his name Ricardo, me, Johnny and Kevin.

Q. Okay. And they all needed money?

A. (Shakes negatively.) No, Kevin and Johnny left.

Q. Okay.

A. They left.

Q. So all the others needed money. Right?

A. (Nods affirmatively.) All of them six of us.

Lopez then described how the group of six went down the stairs and surrounded the family. Q. So there were eight people surrounding the five?

A. No. No. Six (Indicating.)

Q. There were six?

A. Because two of them left.

While the prosecution showed that videotaped conversation to the jury in Lopez’s trial, the judge who presided over the two trials refused to allow it to be shown to Hincapie’s jury, claiming it was hearsay.

Hincapie also maintains that two other witnesses who could have testified that he never went back down into the subway were not called on his behalf, one who had retained a lawyer and gotten immunity from prosecution and one who was subpoenaed to testify but was sent home from the courthouse for reasons that remain murky to this day. Hincapie’s lawyer, David Richman, says he doesn’t recall exactly why any specific witnesses were not called to testify but generally remembers interviewing several potential defense witnesses whose testimony he believed would not have helped Hincapie.

“All I can tell you 20 years later is that if I didn’t put someone on the stand, it had to be because I spoke with them and concluded at the time that it wouldn’t have been in my client’s best interest to call them,” says Richman. “As I recall, a lot of those kids back then talked a tough game in the street, but once you got them into an office for an interview situation, they fell apart, became uncooperative and inarticulate.”

Celebrity Judge Edwin Torres

The usual procedure for selecting a judge to oversee a homicide trial in New York City involves placing the names of judges who are available into a wheel and randomly selecting a name.

But the state Office of Court Administration reserves the right to handpick judges. In the Watkins case, Judge Edwin Torres was assigned in the nonrandom fashion. At the time, a spokeswoman for the OCA told The New York Times that Torres was selected “in the interest of a speedy trial” and because he had “a more manageable schedule.”

Torres was a former homicide prosecutor and a headline-grabbing jurist known for his flowery speeches and tough sentencing policies. He famously told one defendant during a sentencing tirade, “Your parole officer hasn’t even been born yet.” He was also something of a rising celebrity.

Five months before the trial, Tri-Star pictures released the film Q & A starring Nick Nolte, Timothy Hutton and Armand Assante. The screenplay was based on the novel written by Judge Torres. Three years later, another novel by the judge was made into the film Carlito’s Way, starring Al Pacino and Sean Penn.

“They picked this judge because of politics and because they knew he would put them all away for life,” said Hincapie’s father, Carlos, who sat through every day of his son’s trial. “They never stood a chance in that courthouse.” Throughout the trial, most of the time the defense made objections to prosecutorial statements, Torres overruled them. Conversely, most of the times the prosecution objected, those objections were sustained. In fact, on several instances, Torres ruled in favor of the prosecution on objections that hadn’t even been made. He just blurted them out.

David Bookstaver, the spokesman for the state’s court system, dismisses the notion that Torres was biased. “Twenty years later, this seems to be sour grapes, and that’s an understatement,” says Bookstaver. “This was a jury verdict, and to try to disparage Judge Torres, who was an outstanding jurist, in an effort to cast doubt on the outcome of a jury trial is ridiculous.” Torres did not respond to several inquiries for comment.

The Trial

Hincapie’s trial lasted seven weeks and, like most murder trials, was filled with gut-wrenching testimony by the victim’s relatives and excruciatingly boring technical testimony by doctors and other experts. Reading the testimony of Watkins’ parents, his brother and his sister-in-law describing in detail what they saw, thought and felt as the mugging unfolded into the murder is compellingly bone-chilling. The prosecution, as is customary, put them on the stand first, and the horror of their experience overshadowed the whole trial.

The defense lawyers for Hincapie and his three co-defendants were hamstrung during the family members’ testimony. There were weaknesses and inconsistencies, but to impugn the family members before the jury would clearly have drawn bias against the defendants. When asked whether she recognized anyone in the courtroom as the persons who had attacked her and her family, Brian’s mother, Karen, replied, “No.” The judge then coached her to stand up so she could have a better look, which she did, then replied, “No, I do not.”

When the detectives testified, the defense attorneys made somewhat more of an attempt to question them, but not much. Several of the detectives who detained and questioned the suspects swore things under oath that seem beyond reasonable, yet went unchallenged. Despite the fact that five of the eight original suspects have said they were physically and verbally abused and threatened, all the detectives described the process of apprehending, interrogating and eliciting confessions from the suspects as if they were attending tea parties.

In the case of the one suspect whose charges were eventually dropped after he spent a year and a half in jail, the testimony bordered on the surreal. Luis Montero has signed a sworn affidavit attesting to the fact that he was severely beaten while in custody. He never gave a videotaped confession and was never identified in any lineups. Ultimately the DA’s office dropped the charges against him, and he was released.

But during Hincapie’s trial, one of the detectives who questioned both Montero and Hincapie was asked by a defense attorney about his interaction with Montero:

Q. Do you recall when during your questioning of Luis Montero that he told you, these are his words not mine, to go fuck yourself?

A. I believe that’s when we were bringing him back to the RIP area.

Q. And what did you say to Montero if anything after he said that to you?

A. I said, ‘If you want to, you know, come back, make a statement. If you want to tell us what happened, let us know.’

The very idea that a young Hispanic man in police custody told a police detective, “Go fuck yourself,” and received nothing other than a courteous offer to take down any further statements stretches the imagination of anyone who’s ever interacted with members of the NYPD. Yet the attorney who was questioning the detective didn’t follow up on the exchange.

Throughout the trial there was very little questioning of the veracity of the statements by detectives. And on the rare occasions when defense attorneys challenged the detectives’ testimony, they were overruled by the judge and ordered to move their line of questioning along. The jury came back with guilty verdicts for Hincapie and all three of his co-defendants in five hours. They were all convicted of second-degree murder and two counts each of robbery, first and second degree.

A Series of Appeals

Following his conviction, Hincapie’s working-class parents paid a series of lawyers small fortunes to file appeals, none of which came to any fruition. One appeal that made it all the way to the federal appellate level addressed the exclusion of the videotaped confession of Ricardo Lopez, who said Hincapie had left before the robbery, but it was denied—in part, the appeals court said, because Lopez’s evidence “would not have created reasonable doubt as to [Hincapie’s] guilt.” None of Hincapie’s appeals have addressed the central issue of whether his confession was coerced. The attorney who was assigned by the courts to pursue that federal appeal continued to work for Hincapie free of charge because she so believed in his innocence. She persuaded former district attorney Robert Morgenthau to reopen Hincapie’s case.

But rather than give the case to an objective investigator, Morgenthau assigned the reopening of the case to the assistant district attorney who had prosecuted it in 1991. Unsurprisingly, ADA Thomas Schiels found nothing wrong with his handling of the case. Schiels did not return messages seeking comment.

In December 2009 at Sing Sing, Hincapie ran into Anthony Anderson, one of his co-defendants, who had been tried separately from him and who had no recollection of seeing Hincapie before, during or after the robbery. After discussing the case, Anderson swore in a written and notarized statement that he participated in the planning and execution of the robbery and that Hincapie had not been involved.

In recent months Hincapie’s family has made contact with retired FBI agent Joe O’Brien, who has helped exonerate wrongfully convicted men in the past and has agreed to take on Hincapie’s case if he passes a polygraph examination.

In September, the 20th anniversary of Watkin’s death passed without any coverage in the New York media.