Federal jury exonerates Nassau detectives

Defendant John Kogut listens to Nassau County Court Defendant John Kogut listens to Nassau County Court Judge Victor Ort as he finds him not guilty of all counts in murder/ rape of Theresa Fusco. (Dec. 21, 2005) Photo Credit: Dick Yarwood

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A federal jury in Central Islip Thursday found that seven former Nassau detectives acted in good faith when they arrested three former Lynbrook men for the 1984 rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco.

The three men, John Kogut, Dennis Halstead and John Restivo, had spent 17 years behind bars for the crime before being released from prison in 2003 when newly discovered DNA -- from sperm on a swab taken from the victim -- failed to match their DNA profiles.

They sued the county in 2006, claiming malicious prosecution and a deliberate attempt by detectives to charge the three men for a crime they did not commit by planting evidence and coercing a false confession from Kogut.

County Attorney John Ciampoli said, "This is a great victory for the county and for the police department and most of all for the taxpayers."

"In my opinion, these three gentlemen murdered someone and are now trying to make a profit out of the crime that they committed. . . . They got nothing. That is some justice. I deeply regret that they are still not in prison for what happened to Theresa Fusco," he said.

While attorneys for the three said they will appeal, for now, the verdict ends years of litigation -- first in criminal court and then in civil court -- stemming from one of Long Island's most notorious crimes.

The plaintiffs had hoped to use the civil case not only to win $190 million in damages but to prove that Nassau police had a systemic pattern of mishandling homicide cases and framing innocent people. But the jury, when it found the county was not liable, shut the door on that effort.

The trial lasted 21/2 months and the jury deliberated for six days. Jurors declined to comment afterward.

Lee Ginsberg, a private lawyer from Manhattan working for the county, said, "On behalf of our clients, the detectives and Nassau County, we are thankful that we had a jury that followed the evidence and reached a proper and just verdict. Their long ordeal ends at last."

One of the detectives on the case, now-retired Det. Thomas Allen, said, "Had we not arrested the three, we would have been guilty of malfeasance."

The victim's mother, Concetta Napoli, said, "This is a little bit of justice. Complete justice would be seeing them back in jail. . . . At least they are not getting rich at my daughter's expense."

Halstead and Restivo's attorney, Barry Scheck, of the Innocence Project in Manhattan, who brought the case that overturned the criminal convictions, said he was disappointed with the verdict and vowed to appeal.

Anthony Grandinette of Mineola, and Paul Casteleiro of Hoboken, N.J., who represented Kogut, said they were disappointed not only with the verdict but that they are now stymied in their effort to show Nassau police had a "pattern and practice" of mishandling homicide cases, they said.

Nassau prosecutors brought new charges against Kogut in 2005, but he was acquitted in a nonjury trial. Prosecutors then dropped charges against Restivo and Halstead."The wrongful convictions . . . were not the result of innocent or even negligent mistakes, and were not accidental," Scheck had said in legal papers before the trial. "This gross miscarriage of justice was the direct result of a small group of . . . detectives . . . who fabricated and coerced inculpatory statements from Mr. Restivo, Mr. Kogut and other witnesses."

The plaintiffs contended Kogut, then 22, was coerced into giving a false confession that he strangled Fusco to silence her after the others raped her in the van. At the time, Halstead was 31 and Restivo was 27.

The plaintiffs contended in the federal case said Kogut was never read his legal rights before police interrogated him for 19 hours. Kogut said in legal papers that police physically prevented him from leaving the homicide bureau, even though he was not under arrest, and would not let him make a call or speak to a lawyer.

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