Federal jury awards $18 million each to 2 men exonerated in '84 killing, rape

John Restivo talks with Heather Halstead and Melissa

John Restivo talks with Heather Halstead and Melissa Lullo after a jury awarded $18 million to him in a wrongful imprisonment case in Central Islip on Thursday, April 17, 2014. Halstead and Lullo are the daughters of Dennis Halstead, who also received a large award. (Credit: Ed Betz)

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A federal jury awarded $18 million each Thursday to two men who spent almost 18 years in prison before they were exonerated in the 1984 murder and rape of a Lynbrook teenager.

"I woke up today on the other side of the wall," said one of the two men, John Restivo, 56, referring to his trial testimony, in which he talked of his fear the first time he saw the towering walls of the state prison in Attica, where he was incarcerated.

Restivo also displayed a band he has been wearing on his right wrist that said: "Exoneree -- Freedom is not free."


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The other plaintiff in the case, Dennis Halstead, 59, was not in the Central Islip courtroom when the jury of six-women and three men announced a verdict after only two hours of deliberations.

Relatives said Halstead had returned to his Florida home after testifying at the trial Wednesday. The jurors declined to comment on the verdict, with one saying only, "It's done."

Concetta Napoli, the mother of Theresa Fusco, the victim in the criminal case, said she continues to believe the men are guilty. "I don't believe it," she said. "I don't see how they can get away with it. They are being rewarded for committing murder. It makes you lose a little faith in the system."

Last week, in the first phase of the civil trial, jurors decided that now-deceased Nassau County homicide Det. Joseph Volpe had violated Restivo's and Halstead's civil rights by planting and withholding evidence. Jurors then heard 3 1/2 days of testimony and arguments on the question of damages.

Restivo and Halstead were released in 2003 after newly discovered DNA evidence from sperm in Fusco's body did not match their own. A third man, John Kogut, also convicted and exonerated after almost 18 years, was not part of this civil trial. But his attorney, Anthony M. Grandinette said he is appealing U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert's decision to not permit Kogut to go forward.

"This verdict not only reflects the juries' recognition of actual innocence of the under-lying crime, but the heinous constitutional wrongs suffered by these men resulting in their unconscionable and unlawful incarceration spanning 18 years," Grandinette said.

The county's attorney, Louis Freeman, declined to comment.

Restivo's and Halstead's lead attorney, Nick Brustin, said after the verdict: "It's been a long time in coming. The jury recognized what Nassau County and the Nassau County Police Department had failed to recognize. That not only were John and Dennis innocent, but that the county and the police were responsible for the worst kind of intentional misconduct."

In a news release, Restivo reiterated his call for the county to investigate the case and others involving police misconduct.

Brustin had asked the jurors to award each man more than $25 million dollars.

"It's a huge number but it's not nearly enough to compensate them for their suffering," he said.

No one could have "invented a better torture," Brustin said, than having innocent men confined to maximum security prisons in which they lived most of the time in 6-by-8 foot metal cells, rife with insects and rodents, unending noises and noxious odors, and in constant fear of assaults from other prisoners because of the nature of their supposed crimes.

Brustin told jurors the men emerged from prison psychologically damaged; Restivo suffers from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder while Halstead suffers from alcoholism and eating and anxiety disorders.

Freeman said the plaintiffs' psychological problems existed before their imprisonment and he urged jurors to take that into account in any award.

The litigation began in 2006, initially naming the county and more than three dozen police officers as defendants and Halstead's four children as plaintiffs. Various motions and rulings reduced that number.

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