Man exonerated in 1990 New York subway killing of Utahn to get $18 million

Brian Watkins, a 22-year-old Utah tourist, was in New York for the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

New York • A former Queens man who served more than 25 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted in one of the city’s most notorious murders will receive nearly $18 million in settlements with the city and the state, his lawyer said Friday.

The man, Johnny Hincapie, was convicted with six others in the fatal September 1990 subway stabbing of Brian Watkins, a 22-year-old Utah tourist who was in New York for the U.S. Open tennis tournament and on his way to Greenwich Village with his family for dinner.

Watkins was attacked on the platform at Seventh Avenue and 53rd Street as he tried to protect his mother from a group of muggers. The killing, which followed the 1989 beating and rape of a jogger in Central Park, became a symbol of the widespread, often random street violence that plagued New York at the time. The city recorded more than 2,200 killings in 1990.

Hincapie said that a confession he gave to the police had been coerced and in 2015, his murder and robbery convictions were vacated by a state judge who found that newly discovered evidence — including witnesses who could testify Hincapie was not on the platform when the attack occurred — warranted a new trial.

Hincapie was released from prison, and in 2017, the Manhattan district attorney said he would not be retried.

Hincapie’s settlement with the city resolves a 2018 civil rights lawsuit he filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan that had been scheduled for trial in February.

“What happened to Brian Watkins was tragic, and I have never forgotten the loss his family suffered,” Hincapie, 50, said in a brief phone interview Friday. “I am fortunate that once again, my innocence has finally been acknowledged by my city, my state, and I look forward to the next chapter of my life with my family.”

Hincapie’s lawyers, Gabriel Harvis and Baree Fett, said in a statement that the city had settled with their client for $12.9 million. The fact of a settlement — but not the amount — was disclosed in a court filing Tuesday by Judge Paul Crotty. The figure was confirmed by a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department.

The spokesperson, Nick Paolucci, said, “This settlement resolves a long-standing civil case involving a horrific crime. Based on the findings of the DA and our review, this agreement is fair and in the best interest of all parties.”

New York state agreed about two months ago to pay Hincapie $4.8 million to settle a separate legal claim, his lawyers said.

The payouts are among a series of recent multimillion dollar legal settlements in suits claiming misconduct by the city’s police or prosecutors. In October, for example, the city agreed to pay $26 million to resolve lawsuits filed on behalf of two men who had been wrongfully convicted in the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X.

The convictions of the two men, each of whom served more than 20 years in prison, were thrown out by a judge who found “serious miscarriages of justice.”

Paolucci said: “Litigation that lasts for years can be costly for the city. We are committed to carefully reviewing each of these long-standing cases to find a resolution that is fair and in the city’s best interests.”

Paolucci noted that the city had “received and handled many more reverse conviction cases in recent years because of the enhanced efforts by district attorneys” to review past convictions.

Hincapie, who had just turned 18, was among a large group of teenagers who were taking the subway from Queens into Manhattan for a party at the Roseland Ballroom on the day Watkins was killed, the lawsuit says.

Some of the teenagers, two of whom were armed with knives, saw the Watkins family on the platform and assaulted them. One member of the group stabbed Watkins fatally in the chest.

Hincapie, who was arrested the day after the killing, and another young man were upstairs on the station’s turnstile level with two girls, “innocently unaware of what was going on hundreds of feet away on the platform below,” the lawsuit says.

Hincapie had no previous contact with police or history of behavioral problems, and he trusted the police, according to the suit.

“One could hardly conjure a more stressful environment than the tinderbox that was the Midtown North Precinct in the hours following the Watkins killing,” the suit says.

“Johnny was in that room in a very scary situation,” Harvis said. “He looked to the people — to the police officers that had brought him there — as people who would protect him, and make sure that nothing bad happened to him.” As it turned out, Harvis added, “it was quite the opposite.”

The suit claims detectives forced Hincapie to “falsely confess to vague, bystander-like participation in the crime and knowledge of its planning.” He “feared for his life and lacked any meaningful grasp of the nature or gravity of the circumstances he confronted,” the suit says.

After his 1991 trial and conviction, Hincapie was given the maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison. (The other defendants also were tried and convicted, and they received maximum sentences.)

In 2013, after maintaining his innocence for decades, Hincapie filed a motion asserting that innocence and newly discovered evidence. Ronald Kuby, one of the lawyers who handled his post-conviction motions, described him at the time as “the last victim in the Brian Watkins case.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.