By Ashley Oliver
After 25 years of wrongful incarceration, Johnny Hincapie, now 43, came to York College to speak to students and faculty about his ordeal in prison and his triumph over despair through family support and religious faith.
Hincapie was released on Oct. 6 after Manhattan state Supreme Court, Justice Eduardo Padro, overturned his conviction. York Professor and investigative journalist Bill Hughes played an integral role in Hincapie’s case. He was the first reporter to write an article questioning the Bayside native’s conviction. Hughes moderated the Nov. 10 panel discussion in the Little Theater which featured Hincapie. Also on the panel were former NYPD detective Pete Fiorello, former chairman of the New York State Parole Board Bob Dennison, and City Limits Executive Editor and Publisher Jarrett Murphy.
“I was always free in my mind,” said Hincapie. “Even though I was incarcerated, I tried not to lock my mind up. That’s how I grew up and I rose above the jail cells. I have Bill, Bob, Kim, Jarrett, my family, and God to thank for that.”
The “Kim” he referred to was Kim Breden, the musical director for Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a group which volunteers to teach inmates and assist with staging theater productions in prison. It was Breden who introduced Hincapie and Hughes in 2006.
“Through it all, Johnny was strong and Bill was the bulldog,” said Breden. “Bill worked really hard on this case and found people that may have never appeared in the case without him.”
Hincapie, who received a Master’s degree while in prison, stressed the importance of education and said without theater and college, he would not have remained positive.
“Everyone in jail wears a mask,” said Hincapie. “But when you’re learning or acting, you get to take that mask off and be yourself. I know this may sound stupid, but I’m happy I went to prison. I learned a lot about myself and the world in there.”
Hincapie’s ordeal began just two weeks after the first convictions in the Central Park Five case, when he and a group of about 50 teenagers headed to the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan. During a botched mugging, one of the members of the group stabbed and killed 22-year-old Brian Watkins, a tourist from Utah. The next day, Hincapie said NYPD detectives coerced him to admitting that he was involved. To this day, Hincapie maintains his innocence.
At the panel discussion, there were more than 100 people in the audience, including Shavon Richards, a 24-year old Political Science major who approached Hincapie after the talk. He said he was inspired by Hincapie to learn more about wrongfully convicted prisoners.
“Politics is really biased,” he said. “Justice wasn’t served and I’m sure the police wanted to look like the heroes. Of course the murderer of a white boy from Utah would be black or Hispanic.”
But Fiorello, who was on the force from 1963 to 1992, said he does not believe the conviction was completely racially motivated. “The NYPD is the most diverse department in the world,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are always gonna be some bad people in the force that do the things they did to Johnny.”
The most recent motion to vacate Hincapie’s conviction was filed in 2013 and took nearly two years of legal wrangling during which Hughes had to fight a subpoena for his notes from the prosecution. Hincapie recalled the difficult moments throughout his time in prison. He said he was beaten by officers and inmates often tried to manipulate him.
A few weeks after the judge overturned his conviction, rather than drop the charges against Hincapie or re-try him, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. filed notice that he intends to appeal the judge’s ruling.
While that decision will drag out the case for some time, Hincapie said he has high hopes that he will remain a free man. He also said he wants to use his experience to help wrongfully convicted inmates.
“I’m free and the best thing I can do now is live,” he said. “They took 25 years of my life away. I want to share my story not only for myself, but for people to see there is faith if you keep positive.”