BY JESSICA LAU
In 1990, teenager Johnny Hincapie was found guilty of taking part in a high profile murder on a New York City subway. He spent 25 years in prison until York College journalism professor William Hughes and others took an interest in his case. Hughes discovered evidence that eventually led to Hincapie’s release.
Hughes specializes in in-depth investigative journalism projects. He wound up spending substantial time over an 11-year period working on the Hincapie case. During that time, he worked closely with Hincapie’s attorney, Ron Kuby. The big break came when he discovered that a vital witness, Luis Montero, had information that could support Hincapie’s claims of innocence in the murder of Utah tourist Brian Watkins. Montero had originally been too frightened to come forward with this evidence.
A Manhattan criminal court judge recently dismissed the case against Hincapie, who was released in 2015 with the possibility of a re-trial and resentencing. However, the 1990 guilty verdict has not been vacated.
In class, Hughes teaches his students to be fair and thorough and to forget everything they see on TV about being a reporter. He said good investigative work is a marathon, not a sprint.
“One reason I left [my] full time reporter job and became a professor at York College was because being a professor gave me time and freedom to pursue my research,” said Hughes, an assistant professor at York for the past nine years.
Hughes continues to screen cases of persons whom he believes may have been wrongly convicted. For the past several months, he has been working at the Deskovic Foundation for Justice as a pro bono private investigator. The Deskovic Foundation is a non-profit corporation committed to the prevention of wrongful convictions in both DNA and non-DNA cases.
Jeffrey Deskovic, the founder of this foundation was a victim of a wrongful conviction in 1990. He was wrongfully accused of raping, beating and strangling Angela Correa. Deskovic was exonerated after 16 years in prison. He won $41,650,000 in a lawsuit against sheriff’s investigator Daniel Stephens and Putnam County.
Deskovic now attends law school at John Jay Criminal Justice College and still spends time working with his foundation.
The foundation is a non-profit corporation that has several dozen active cases and a backlog of more than 600 requests for assistance. Hughes spends one day per week at the foundation. He is currently working with Deskovic to develop a system to track the status of each case and digitize all the files. In addition, Hughes conducts investigative work as the need arises.
Hughes says that each case is approached in the same way—incarcerated individuals have to fill out an extensive questionnaire detailing the specifics of their case and Hughes and his team then reviews each case to see if they are viable. The team assesses whether there were legal violations during the initial trial that might present chances for an appeal. They then decide if additional investigative work could uncover evidence that was not available at the time of the trial.
“The greatest challenge often involves convincing witnesses who testified for the prosecution to come forward and admit they lied under oath to save their own skin,” says Hughes. “They were convinced to do so by law enforcement officials through threats, beatings, lies, promises and all manner of coercive techniques frequently employed.”
In investigating a wrongful conviction case, the key steps involve a careful review of each case, starting with procuring and reading the original trial transcript. The transcript could run thousands and, occasionally, tens of thousands of pages. A list of questions gets drawn up and each client is then visited in prison to discuss the questions that arise from the transcript review. Hughes say that it can be difficult to obtain key evidence that prosecutors keep in their possession and to keep track of numerous cases at the same time.
“There are no adequate words to describe the feeling of being instrumental in saving someone from dying in a prison,” says Hughes. “But for starters, I can tell you it is profoundly gratifying on both a personal and professional level.”
Hughes continues to use as inspiration the time when he was falsely arrested and charged in an assault case at age 15. The charges were thrown out, but Hughes came close to sharing the same fate of the men and women whom he helps. He said that even persons with complicated cases are given hope by the fact that somebody is attempting to right the injustice that resulted in them being locked up.