He Spent 24 Years Behind Bars Because Queens Prosecutors Broke The Rules. Was This Their Only Wrongful Conviction?

They came up at a time when prosecutors were expected to be tough, and this was one of the toughest offices around: Queens under District Attorney Richard Brown. Back then, Queens prosecutors made sure to back their brothers in blue and they did a better job locking up the bad guys than anyone else in the city. And if some idealistic judge decided Brown’s rank-and-file were a little overzealous in their pursuit of justice and ordered a new trial? So be it. They could always try again. Discipline was almost never called for.

Brad Leventhal rose to serve as Brown’s top homicide prosecutor for more than a decade. He handled dozens of cases, including the highly-publicized prosecution of Chanel Lewis, a Black man accused of the 2016 murder of a white jogger, Karina Vetrano, in Howard Beach. There were concerns about Lewis’s confession and the prosecution’s introduction of evidence mid-trial. But in the end, Leventhal won that conviction, and many more.

Charles Testagrossa was also promoted over the years, eventually joining Brown’s executive team where he helped shape the District Attorney’s unrelenting approach to crime for years before taking another top post in Nassau County. Brown entrusted Testagrossa with the high-profile, high-pressure job of prosecuting the three NYPD officers who killed Sean Bell, a young Black man, in a hail of gunfire outside a strip club on the eve of his wedding in 2006. The trial resulted in an acquittal for all the officers with critics accusing prosecutors of undermining their own case.

Years before those headline grabbers, in 1999 Leventhal and Testagrossa teamed up on another career-making case: the brutal murders of a check-cashing store owner and an off-duty NYPD officer in East Elmhurst. It happened just days before Christmas on Astoria Boulevard. A team of gunmen trying to rob the store had shot them in cold blood. By Christmas day, two suspects, one 19, the other 22, had confessed. And police found their other suspects in no time. The city’s tough-on-crime mayor Rudy Giuliani told the media that the death penalty was in order. The prosecutors thought so too.

New York's tabloids portrayed Bell as the epitome of evil, a cold-blooded killer.

New York’s tabloids portrayed Bell as the epitome of evil, a cold-blooded killer. Exhibits in court filing from attorneys for Bell, Johnson and Bolt.

From the outside, it looked like Leventhal and Testagrossa did their jobs well. They ran with the confessions that police had secured for them. They shut down defense attempts to muddy the waters about who did the crime. Bottom line: they secured justice for grieving families and took the criminals off the streets for an outraged public.

That’s the story the courts and most New Yorkers believed for more than two decades. Then it all fell apart.

Last month, the three Black men they sent to prison in 1999 and 2000 for those murders in East Elmhurst—George Bell, Gary Johnson, and Rohan Bolt—were released. The judge who set them free expressly blamed Leventhal, Testagrossa, and their colleagues at the Queens District Attorney’s Office for finding ways to “hide evidence” that would have revealed other credible suspects and for making false statements to the court in their quest for convictions.

Prosecutors have a duty to disclose favorable information to defendants. And at a hearing last month, Queens Judge Joseph Zayas noted this responsibility was all the more acute in this case because the DA’s Office sought the death penalty for one of the young men police had arrested.

Instead, the Queens prosecution team “completely abdicated its truth-seeking role,” he said, “perhaps because it knew that the evidence being sought by the defense would substantially undermine the likelihood of obtaining a conviction.”

In the aftermath of the court’s blistering decision, Leventhal and Testagrossa, by now veteran prosecutors, resigned. Neither has responded to repeated requests for comment.

Now everyone is waiting to see what happens next.

Last year, Melinda Katz, who ran to replace Richard Brown on a platform of reform, took over the Queens DA’s Office, where she instituted numerous reforms and new initiatives, including a robust Conviction Integrity Unit. That unit conducted an investigation into this case. In response, Katz agreed to vacate the conviction, but characterized the prosecutors’ errors in the case as “inadvertent.”

“For decades, these men sought unsuccessfully to have their convictions overturned,” the Queens District Attorney’s Office said in a statement. “But it wasn’t until the CIU’s investigation uncovered constitutional violations that justice moved forward, resulting in the vacated convictions of George Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt.”

But critics note the move came after Katz’s administration received overtures behind closed doors from several Black community leaders, who had helped propel her into office. And criminal justice reform advocates say there is still plenty of “justice” that needs to be “moved forward.”

Unlike Katz, some lawmakers are not buying the line that the trial prosecutors’ misconduct in this case was “inadvertent.” Like the judge who released the men, they believe this was deliberate, and was almost certainly not isolated. Now they want a review of all the cases handled by Leventhal and Testagrossa. But Katz, who kept on numerous veterans including Leventhal, has thus far refused to commit to such a review because her office did not find intentional misconduct took place.

Rachel Barkow, an NYU Law Professor, said this refusal to probe the trial prosecutors’ other cases is a “major red flag,” an indication that some in the DA’s Office are concerned about what else might be found.

“These are real people’s lives. If there are people who are sitting in prison because these prosecutors didn’t have the right ethical compass and there was misconduct in their cases, they need to get relief,” said Barkow. “If I were a district attorney and I found that out about someone in my office, there would be no stone unturned to make sure that we knew that every conviction that person was involved in still had integrity.”

From Old Navy To Rikers Island

In the early morning hours, just days before Christmas in 1996, Ira “Mike” Epstein was lifting up the metal security shutter in front of his check-cashing store on Astoria Boulevard in East Elmhurst, as he did most mornings. He was with Charles Davis, an off-duty NYPD officer working security to pick up some extra cash. But on this particular day, a team of gunmen crept up on them and forced Epstein and Davis inside. Then, something went wrong before the robbery could go down. The gunmen shot Epstein and Davis almost immediately, killing them, and fled without any money.

With a double homicide and one of their own killed, the NYPD launched a massive manhunt questioning hundreds of residents in the area. Violent crime had fallen dramatically in New York City by the mid-90s, but the “bad old days” weren’t altogether over. Officer Davis was the sixth cop shot that year and Mayor Giuliani, himself a former prosecutor, was eager to hold a press conference announcing a breakthrough in the case.

One of the people police swept up in the investigation was John Mark Bigweh, a petty drug dealer who suffered from auditory hallucinations of his dead mother and thoughts of suicide. Under intense pressure to solve the case, police questioned the man over the next two days. What had started as a marijuana arrest eventually turned into a confession about the Astoria Boulevard check-cashing store murders. After one six-hour interrogation session, police took down a statement from Bigweh: he said he had served as the look-out and was working with four other men. One of the men who fired the shots, he claimed, was someone he knew from the neighborhood, George Bell.

George Bell was not the type you would necessarily figure for a crime like this—casing a store and executing an armed robbery, let alone a double murder. Sure, he grew up with some people like Bigweh in Corona, a neighborhood that had its fair share of drug dealing and street violence at that time. But Bell’s family was stable and middle-class, the churchgoing type. The 19-year-old lived in a brownstone with his mother, grandmother, and two siblings.

Family members described Bell as a “mama’s boy,” though he wasn’t shy. He was an aspiring DJ, who liked to be the life of the party. By day, he folded clothes and unpacked cargo as a stock boy at Old Navy. By night, he was performing at neighborhood gatherings and passing out his mixtapes to other local rappers. It was the Golden Age of Hip Hop in Queens. Nas’ Illmatic had come out a few years earlier. Ja Rule was about to become a star.

“I really had dreams of actually getting into the music industry, maybe becoming a DJ on the radio, traveling, playing for concerts and things like that,” Bell told Gothamist/WNYC.

He never got his chance. Four days after the Astoria Boulevard check-cashing store robbery, NYPD officers, following Bigweh’s lead, showed up outside Bell’s home, arrested him, and dragged him to the 109th Precinct in Flushing. They handcuffed him to a wall for about four hours. Then at around 4:30 am they brought him to an interrogation room by himself—no lawyer—and began asking him about the murders.

They did not record their five-hour interrogation.

“The only thing that’s on my mind is like, ‘Please God, please God, just please send me home to my family because I do not know [what] I’m doing here right now,” Bell remembered. “I don’t even know why I’m in the room. I don’t know why these people are questioning me.”

Bell had no criminal record and no experience with police interrogations like this. At first, he says he repeatedly denied any involvement in the attack. But that was not good enough for the two detectives in the room. According to the accounts Bell later gave his attorneys, one detective screamed, “You know you did it,” before punching him in the head and knocking him out of his chair. Bell says he pleaded for the detective to stop, but instead the older man pounded him again. Bell said he appealed to the other detective in the room, whom he remembers sitting there, having a smoke. “Isn’t this police brutality?” he asked. “No, it isn’t,” the man replied.

Bell recalled the first detective smacking him again. “Let me know what I want to know,” he says the investigator warned him, barking more questions at him.

That’s when Bell says he finally broke. He said he was there. He said he did the shooting. And every time he refused to say something or said something they didn’t like, Bell says, the detectives were there to prompt or assault him.

Nearly twelve hours after Bell’s arrest and unrecorded interrogation, a prosecutor from the Queens DA’s Office arrived. Now they were ready to record George Bell’s confession.

The video shows Bell slumped in his chair with his cheek resting on one hand. His braided hair is unraveling. The detective, whom Bell would later accuse of assault, sits in the room monitoring. At one point, after answering the prosecutor’s questions, Bell turns to the detective and asks, if he “‘did good?’”

At another point in the video, Bell pauses for a while, sighs, then mumbles “being framed.” The prosecutor does not follow up. Bell then continues answering questions.

Despite Bell’s troubling comments in the video and the subsequent abuse allegations, which police denied, Queens prosecutors chose to push forward with their case. District Attorney Richard Brown, who had previously professed opposition to the death penalty, charged Bell with capital murder. At a hearing announcing the charges, a crowd of NYPD officers cheered at the news.

The Prosecution Plays Hardball With The Defense

Four months after Bell’s arrest, news broke in another case that Bell’s defense team thought could help clear their client. Another off-duty officer in Queens had been shot in a robbery, this time of an armored car.

Critically for Bell’s defense, the New York Daily News reported that two gang members under arrest for the armored car heist were also suspects in the “December ambush that killed a check-cashing firm owner and off-duty police officer Charles Davis.”

Bell’s defense attorneys, who already had doubts about their client being a hold-up man, asked prosecutors for what they had on these gang members. The Queens DA’s Office denied having any evidence pointing to other, uncharged suspects in Bell’s case. This was false.

Before Bell’s trial, prosecutors had, in fact, received a police report about this very gang, a ring of stickup artists called “Speed Stick.” The report implicated the gang’s leaders, including one of the two men named in the Daily News story, in the planning of the Astoria Boulevard check-cashing store robbery.

Charles Testagrossa himself, the man who would later prosecute Bell, debriefed a detective who detailed the Speed Stick gang’s potential role in the Astoria Boulevard check-cashing store murders. On one page of his handwritten notes about that conversation, entitled “Speed Stick Notes,” Testagrossa jotted down that a key Speed Stick member “was driver in Davis homicide,” referring to the off-duty officer, Charles Davis, killed in the check-cashing store.

Handwritten notes from a Queens ADA who prosecuted George Bell.

Queens prosecutor Charles Testagrossa took notes during an interview with an NYPD detective referring to the Speed Stick gang’s potential involvement in the Astoria Boulevard check-cashing store murders. PROVIDED BY ATTORNEYS FOR BELL, JOHNSON AND BOLT.

The jury had to find George Bell and his alleged accomplices guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And information about other potential suspects could have raised concerns for some or all of the jurors, who would have had to weigh whether George Bell and his fellow defendants were as likely to have carried out the armed robbery as a crew of seasoned criminals.

But at trial whenever Bell’s attorneys tried to learn about or raise the issue of the NYPD’s other suspects, Testagrossa and Leventhal objected, telling the judge they knew for a fact that these inquiries were not relevant.

Testagrossa told the judge there was “no connection” between the armored car and the check-cashing store robberies. When the defense sought more information on an NYPD fingerprint test probing another suspect, Leventhal said this, too, was “irrelevant.” Yet, unbeknownst to the defense, that suspect was the very Speed Stick gang member mentioned in Testagrossa’s handwritten notes as the driver in the Astoria Boulevard check-cashing store murders.

The trial prosecutors’ adamant denials to the court successfully kept the defense and the jury in the dark about an alternative theory of the case involving other, credible suspects.

In lieu of any physical evidence tying Bell to the check-cashing store on Astoria Boulevard, prosecutors relied on Bell’s precinct confession, a single eye witness who identified Bell after seeing the crime from more than sixty yards away, and a jailhouse snitch, who claimed that Bell had spontaneously admitted to the murder at Riker’s Island and likely secured a generous sentencing recommendation.

During the trial, Bell remained behind bars. Though his family visited him regularly to reassure him, Bell remembers having a bad feeling. “My mother, she’s telling me, ‘Baby, stay strong. You’re going to get out of this. Things are going to get better.’ Even though I felt like at the time, ‘I don’t see how things is going to get better.’”

In the end, Bell’s intuition was right. The jurors voted to convict. Afterwards, a court officer allowed his attorney, Mitch Dinnerstein, to go into the cell in court to see him. The young man, he says, threw up. He was later sentenced to life without parole.

“I Think We’ve Been Getting Away With This Kind of Stuff for a Long Time”

The prosecutorial misconduct in the case of George Bell and his co-defendants was hardly an aberration for the Queens District Attorney’s office. Between 1985 and 2017, judges admonished Queens prosecutors for misconduct more than one hundred times, according to an analysis of appellate decisions by Joel Rudin, a civil rights attorney who has sued the DA’s Office multiple times.

Much of this misconduct took place after District Attorney Richard Brown took power in 1991. Newly-obtained evidence shows that less than a decade into his tenure, Brown was well aware of at least some of the misconduct happening under his watch.

In 1998, after another serious conviction was reversed in Queens due to an appellate finding of prosecutorial misconduct, Brown scribbled a note to one of his executives, which was found attached to the court’s decision. “Jack – Let’s discuss how to handle – I think we’ve been getting away with this kind of stuff for a long time,” the District Attorney wrote. The note was finally released to Rudin and several other attorneys last month as part of a lawsuit over prosecutorial misconduct that began nine years ago.

But while Brown may have been aware of misconduct on the part of his assistant DAs, his administration did little to formally punish those whom courts admonished for breaking the rules at trial. A Gothamist/WNYC investigation last year identified ten high-ranking Queens prosecutors who were criticized by courts for serious misconduct but had no documented discipline in their personnel files. Among them: the junior counsel at the George Bell trial, Brad Leventhal.

After Bell’s conviction, Leventhal became the lead prosecutor in the cases against his co-defendants, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt. The attorneys in both cases assert that Leventhal committed further misconduct by allowing Bigweh, the mentally-ill drug dealer who helped police break open the case, to give false and misleading testimony on the witness stand. Both men were sentenced to fifty years to life.

On the day of Bolt’s sentencing, the last in the three high-profile cases, personnel records indicate an elevation in Leventhal’s title from Assistant District Attorney to Deputy Chief of the office’s Career Criminal Major Crimes bureau. They also note that he received a $6,000 raise the next day.

Gary Johnson, pictured on the left, and Rohan Bolt, pictured on the right, with their families. Both men were sentenced to fifty years to life following misconduct by Queens prosecutors.

Gary Johnson, pictured on the left, and Rohan Bolt, pictured on the right, with their families. Both men were sentenced to fifty years to life following misconduct by Queens prosecutors. Defense counsel for Johnson and Bolt.

From there, Leventhal rose to become Chief of the Homicide Trial Bureau. Just four months into his promotion, an appellate court reversed one of his convictions in an attempted murder case, citing “repeated instances of prosecutorial misconduct” during cross-examination and closing arguments. But Queens District Attorney Richard Brown allowed Leventhal to continue supervising junior prosecutors’ cases, several of which also resulted in misconduct findings. In 2017, Leventhal earned yet another promotion, Deputy Executive of the Major Crimes Division.

Charles Testagrossa, the more senior prosecutor in Bell’s case, also continued his ascent. The year after Bell’s conviction, he moved up from a Bureau Chief position in the Queens DA’s Office to Deputy Executive Assistant District Attorney for the office’s Trial Division. There he helped assess allegations of wrongful convictions internally. He later took on another executive position in Queens which he enjoyed until 2016, the year he became a top executive in the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office.

Life Inside

While Bell’s two trial prosecutors continued to move up in the world, the teenager grew into a veteran of the New York State prison system. He had to give up his dreams of a musical career. Survival was now his main goal.

“Everybody wakes up in there every day, they just say, ‘Ok from sunup to sundown, let me just make it out of my cell or make it back,’” he says. It was normal, he told Gothamist/WNYC, to see men getting cut up and stabbed, and to hear them crying out at night.

After his sentencing, Bell’s mother vowed she would stick by him, but she worried he would not be strong enough to survive prison. But Bell says his amiable disposition, which his family fretted over, proved to be a survival skill.

“They say sometimes when you’re in prison, the weak doesn’t survive, and in a sense that’s true. But sometimes to be a strong person doesn’t mean you have to do physical or heinous acts,” he told Gothamist/WNYC. “Sometimes being strong could just mean just walking with an upstanding manner and being civil to a lot of people.”

Despite his life sentence, Bell found ways to move forward. He became a power-lifting trainer, completed his G.E.D., and eventually received a degree in Family Law from Lehman College.

His resolve was strengthened by visits from his family. Lance Bell, George’s younger brother, has childhood memories of visiting prison: his older brother coming into the visitors’ room beaming and asking him about how school was going. But then, he says, towards the end of each visit, the mood would change. As they got their last drinks and sandwiches from the vending machines, the younger brother would start crying, wondering why his George was not coming back to Queens with them.

As he got older, Lance Bell says, his older sibling tried to maintain their relationship. He encouraged Lance’s interest in poetry and would share his own rhymes from prison, even performing them through the phone. The younger Bell says it took years for him to appreciate how motivated his brother was to find his way home.

“He was in that law library studying the law, don’t know nothing about the law, don’t know nothing about anything that had to do with courts,” Lance Bell told Gothamist/WNYC. “But he made it his business to go to the law library every single day, and find out what’s going on with his case.”

In 2004, yet again, the Queens DA told Bell’s attorneys that there was “nothing further to disclose.” By 2012, the DA had defeated all of Bell’s legal challenges. Meanwhile, Richard Brown continued to lead the office, where he refused calls to form a conviction integrity unit unlike many of his peers across the country.

No matter how much jailhouse lawyering he did, Bell could not move the needle on his case. Years turned into decades. The grandmother he lived with in Corona passed away. He attended her funeral in shackles and was not allowed to stand close to his family. His little brother Lance was now grown up. Between his job as a construction driver in Brooklyn and the two kids he had to look after, he had less time to give George. Over the years, a few articles about the case came out. And even though Lance tried passing out copies of the story to people he met at work, no one ever followed up offering to help. Nothing changed. Bell woke up everyday living under the weight of a life sentence.

The late Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

The late Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock

“Brother, You Made It”

Two decades after he went to prison, Bell’s attorneys got a break. In its response to a wrongful conviction challenge in another case, the Queens DA unwittingly disclosed two police reports, which revealed they had, in fact, been sitting on evidence favorable to Bell’s defense the whole time. Specifically, the evidence tying suspects from the Speed Stick gang to the Astoria Boulevard check-cashing store murders.

Bell says that the discovery reenergized him. “I told myself I can’t really feel relieved until I actually walk as a free man, but [in] the same sense I started having more hope. I started feeling great. Everyday I wake up I said, ‘I really have something to look forward to.’”

Armed with the new evidence, his legal team bided it’s time and waited because reform was in the air.

By the summer of 2019, the Queens DA’s Office was headed in a new direction. After decades of control, Brown announced in January of that year that he wouldn’t seek re-election then passed away a few months later of complications from Parkinson’s disease. By that August, Queens borough president Melinda Katz, who ran on a promise of transforming the office, had emerged as the undisputed winner.

With a new, reform-minded DA in Queens, Bell and his attorneys submitted a request that the convictions be overturned. Katz’s brand new Conviction Integrity Unit began a review of the case, which turned up many more undisclosed records, including Testagrossa’s handwritten notes implicating a Speed Stick gang member in the Astoria Boulevard check-cashing store robbery. After several months, Katz agreed to vacate the convictions of Bell, Johnson, and Bolt.

George Bell embraces his family after walking out of prison.

George Bell embraces his family after walking out of prison. Klaus Enrique

Bell remembers being taken downstairs by guards and chuckling as he examined the bag he had been sent with a suit inside for him to put on. “The officer was looking at me and I couldn’t even open up the bag because the bag looked so different from what I’m used to using all the time. And I just sat back and I just kept laughing myself.”

After putting his black jacket and dress pants on, Bell followed the guards to the entrance with Johnson and Bolt. For the first time in two decades he could now walk forward without anyone there to tell him otherwise. “When I finally got a chance to take a walk, I just felt like all the emotional stress, the shackles that I had on me,” he says. “It’s like each step that I took, every shackle and things that I went through was falling down and leaving a dirty path behind me.”

As he stepped outside, Bell remembers looking up at the sky, which was clear and blue outside the Green Haven Correctional Facility that day, his mind flooded with serenity. “I felt so at peace that day,” he says. “God was shining down on me. And I said to myself, ‘Brother. you made it.’”

Bell’s “strange odyssey,” as he calls it, is not yet over.

District Attorney Katz says her investigation into the case is ongoing. She has until June 4th to decide whether to retry the case or drop the indictments against the three men. Then there is the question of what happens to the trial prosecutors, Leventhal and Testagrossa, who both resigned following the conviction vacations.

In court thus far, the Queens DA has said Testagrossa and Leventhal’s false denials blocking the defense from learning about the alternative suspects were made in “good faith.” Sticking to the line that their conduct was “inadvertent,” Katz has refused public calls for a review of their other cases and convictions.

But Charles Linehan, a former Manhattan prosecutor who investigated the case for Bell’s exoneration team, argues that even if Testagrossa and Leventhal were initially in the dark about the alternative suspects, once the defense repeatedly asked about it at trial, they had an obligation to seek and then tell the truth.

“You have to remember this was a capital case. A man was literally on trial for his life. And as a prosecutor and an officer of the court, you can’t just make stuff up,” he said. “It has to be grounded in the truth, especially where your representations are relied upon by the court. Here, they had the effect of sending a man to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And that’s on them.”

Bell did not return to Corona, Queens after his release. He is now living on Long Island with his fiancée, Burnette Nay Green. The two first started dating in high school and stayed in touch throughout his time in prison. If Melinda Katz dismisses his indictment in June, he hopes to start a career in public speaking and criminal justice reform. He is also looking forward to starting a family of his own.