Johnny Hincapie, convicted in 1990 at the age of 18 for taking part in an infamous subway platform murder of a Utah tourist but later freed after new evidence cast doubt on his guilt, filed a wrongful conviction suit against the city Thursday.
The complaint alleges the detectives named in the suit manufactured evidence, coerced confessions and concealed misconduct in an attempt to make the headline-inducing crime reach a quick conclusion.
In the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, attorneys for the now-45-year-old Hincapie called 1990 “a dark time” in New York City’s history. Murders were at their peak. The Central Park Five case, involving five young men of color convicted of raping a young woman in the park, cast a shadow over how police handled violent cases, the complaint suggests.
All five of the defendants in that case would eventually be exonerated, after it was revealed they were forced to confess by NYPD detectives. Detective Carlos Gonzalez was assigned to that case, as well as the murder of Brian Watkins, the man who Hincapie would be convicted of killing.
According to the complaint, Gonzalez and other named defendants on the force used unconstitutional tactics to elicit a confession out of Hincapie, in an effort to quickly bring the high-profile case to a close.
“Johnny Hincapie—barely 18 years old and with deficient language comprehensions skills, believed the detective’s false promises, feared for his life and lacked any meaningful grasp of the nature or gravity of the circumstances he confronted,” the complaint states.
Hincapie and three other defendants received the maximum sentence of 25 years to life at the same trial. Three others were also convicted in the case. However, in 2015, a state court overturned his conviction, after multiple witnesses testified under oath to Hincapie’s innocence—none of whom, the complaint notes, testified during his criminal trial.
New York has an “above-average rate of false confessions,” the complaint goes on to state, pointing back to the “quintessential compliant false confession” of the defendants in the Central Park Five case.
“Even when conducted legally, American-style police interrogation is a psychologically oriented, guilt-presumptive process,” the complaint states. Hincapie’s wrongful conviction, which the complaint says the defendants were fully aware of, “was not an isolated incident” at the time, the consequences of which have resulted in numerous exonerations and settlements with the city over similar allegations.
The complaint alleges federal malicious prosecution, violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment protections against evidence fabrication, illegal coercion, and other claims.
“The coerced confession was the primary evidence used to convict Mr. Hincapie at trial. We intend to prove that the confession was the product of egregious, systemic misconduct that pervaded the city’s police department in the jogger era,” said Hincapie’s lawyer, Gabriel Harvis of Harvis & Fett.
A spokesman for the city’s Law Department said it was reviewing the complaint.
A spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which opted not to retry Hincapie after his conviction was thrown out, declined to comment. Reports at the time suggested the office continued to believe he was part of the group that attacked Watkins, but, given the challenges of bringing the 30-year-old case, decided against a new trial.