The night 27 years ago when Theresa Fusco disappeared near a Lynbrook roller skating rink, a young man nearby reported that his car had been stolen, a lawyer told jurors in federal court yesterday.
When the man, John French, discovered his car abandoned in a clearing days later, the windshield was smashed, a length of nylon rope was missing and a pair of striped women's jeans were bunched under the backseat, said the lawyer, Barry Scheck of Manhattan.
Fusco, 16, had been wearing striped jeans when she disappeared, and police believed she had been strangled with a length of nylon rope.
But though French took the evidence to Nassau homicide detectives right away, the tip was never passed on to prosecutors, or the defense lawyers for the three men they ultimately charged with Fusco's murder, Scheck said.
That failure to pass along critical evidence is just one element in what John Kogut, John Restivo and Dennis Halstead say was a malicious prosecution that led them each to spend more than 18 years in prison for a murder they did not commit.
Yesterday, the three men, who were freed in 2003 after new DNA evidence surfaced, began a federal trial demanding $190 million in damages from Nassau County and the police officials who oversaw the case.
"These acts were done with malice, with one goal, and that was to ensure the convictions of these three men," attorney Anthony Grandinette, who represents Kogut, told jurors. Scheck represents the other two.
Lee Ginsberg, a lawyer representing Nassau County, will make his opening statement today, promising the jury "an entirely different version" of the facts.
In legal papers, the county has stood by the police investigation. Nassau prosecutors brought new charges against Kogut in 2005, but he was acquitted after a nonjury trial.
In Kogut's videotaped confession shown to jurors yesterday, he confessed that he strangled Fusco to silence her after the others raped her in the van.
But Grandinette told jurors Kogut, then 22, was never read his legal rights before police interrogated him for 19 hours. He said police physically prevented Kogut from leaving the homicide bureau, and would not let him make a call or speak to a lawyer.