NEW YORK — After 25 years of trying to clear himself in a notorious tourist killing, Johnny Hincapie walked out of a courthouse Tuesday, his conviction overturned and his resolve intact.
He faces the possibility of prosecutors appealing the decision or retrying him in the 1990 killing of Utah tourist Brian Watkins, who was stabbed to death in a subway station as he defended his parents during a mugging that helped crystallize an era of crime and fear in the nation's biggest city.
But "I'll deal with that tomorrow. Right now, I just want to take one step at a time," Hincapie said after emerging, tears streaming down his cheeks, to hugs and cheers from relatives who hadn't seen him outside a jail or prison in a quarter-century. "I feel wonderful. I feel free!"
"It's sad that it took 25 years for the truth to uncover itself," he said. "But I thank God that now, I can start to put all of this behind me."
Hincapie says he was a bystander wrongfully swept up in the case and then was coerced into a false confession. Prosecutors said his claims aren't credible.
State Supreme Court Justice Eduardo Padro said new evidence — including new testimony from two witnesses and a co-defendant saying Hincapie wasn't involved in the crime — merited a new trial. Padro stopped short of declaring Hincapie innocent, as he and his lawyers had hoped the judge might, but agreed to release him on $1 bail while awaiting a retrial.
Prosecutors said they were weighing whether to appeal the ruling and were committed to retrying the case, if necessary.
"We regret the fact that retrying the case would subject the family of Mr. Watkins to testifying at another trial, reopening old wounds and forcing them to relive the horror of that night 25 years ago," Manhattan district attorney's office spokeswoman Joan Vollero said in a statement.
A message left for Watkins' mother wasn't immediately returned.
The killing became a symbol of random violence in a city that was reeling from it, after the 1989 rape and beating of a woman known as the Central Park jogger and a spate of bloodshed in the summer of 1990. Watkins' death — one of a record-setting 2,245 in 1990, compared to 333 last year — helped prompt then-Mayor David Dinkins to propose a program designed to increase police protection.
Watkins, 22, and his parents were in town from Provo, Utah, for the U.S. Open tennis tournament. They were heading to dinner when they were jumped by a group of youths looking to rob people to get money to go to a dance hall, police said. After his father was slashed and robbed of $200 and his mother was punched and kicked, Watkins was stabbed in the chest yet chased the attackers up two stairways before collapsing under a turnstile.
"Why did they do this to me?" he said, according to his father's testimony at Hincapie's trial. "We're just here to have a good time."
Hincapie, a Colombian immigrant whose name is pronounced hihn-CAHP'-ee-ay, was one of seven young men convicted in the case. Another defendant was accused of actually stabbing Watkins, but authorities said the whole group bore responsibility for his death.
Hincapie, now 43, has long said he was in a different part of the subway station when the stabbing happened. "I had nothing to do with this," he wrote in a 1990 letter to his then-lawyer.
Hincapie unsuccessfully appealed his conviction before bringing his latest challenge in 2013. Prosecutors said there was "no credible newly discovered evidence" in the case.
But Padro wrote that the new testimony from the witnesses and co-defendant would "create a probability" of a more favorable verdict for the defense, a legal standard for tossing out a conviction.
Hincapie has finished high school and earned bachelor's and master's degrees while serving 25 years to life in prison, said his lawyer, Ron Kuby.
At one point, Hincapie said, he felt bitter and vengeful toward those he blamed for his conviction. And still, he says, "Shame on those individuals who did this to me and shame on all those individuals who had knowledge of what happened to me.
"But I forgive them."