By TOM HAYS
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK- Barry Gibbs was a forgotten man convicted of a forgotten crime he said he never committed: the 1986 slaying of a prostitute in Brooklyn.On Thursday, a judge threw out his 1988 murder conviction and released him based on new evidence that the same detective coerced a witness into identifying him as the killer.
It took a more memorable case - the arrest earlier this year of a former detective on charges he doubled as a mob hit man - for authorities to finally listen to Gibbs.
"I knew I was innocent," Gibbs, 57, said at a crowded news conference at his lawyers' office. "I just had to make people believe."
The sudden release of Gibbs after 19 years behind bars was the latest twist in the case of former detectives Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, dubbed the "Mafia cops" by tabloids.
Both were arrested in Las Vegas in March on federal charges alleging they moonlighted as professional hit men in the 1980s and 1990s, settling scores against rivals of a Lucchese crime family underboss for tens of thousands of dollars.
Eppolito also was the lead investigator in the slaying of the prostitute. He located a witness who testified at a trial that, while jogging, he had seen Gibbs dump the body of the strangled victim near a bridge.
Gibbs, at the time a postal worker who was struggling with a drug problem, admitted he once had an "encounter" with the woman but said he never harmed her. Still, he was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
Following Eppolito's arrest, Gibbs' lawyers urged federal agents and prosecutors to re-examine his case. The discovery of an old homicide file on the prostitute's killing in the former detective's Las Vegas home raised suspicions further.
Under recent questioning by the FBI, the witness recanted, claiming Eppolito had bribed and intimidated him into identifying Gibbs, authorities said. Investigators have speculated the former detective may have been trying to deflect attention away from mobsters who were the actual killers.
The Brooklyn district attorney's office, which prosecuted Gibbs, decided to seek his release after it "determined the witness's trial testimony was suspect," prosecutor Kenneth Taub said outside court.
An attorney for Eppolito, Bruce Cutler, denied any wrongdoing, and accused prosecutors of trying to "discredit my client's remarkable police career."
Gibbs, a burly man with a white beard, seemed stunned by his sudden change in fortune, and described his ordeal with a mix of bitterness and elation.
"I'm a little overwhelmed here," he said. "It's been a rough road. I'm a survivor."
Given the chance, Gibbs said he would tell Eppolito, "You've got a lot of nerve doing what you did to me."
He said he was looking forward to feasting on a lobster tail stuffed with crab meat before worrying about how he'll survive on the outside.
"I was a legitimate guy," he said, "and now I have nothing."