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Families of exonerated men testify at trial about what they missed

Dennis Halstead, left, and John Restivo walk into

Dennis Halstead, left, and John Restivo walk into the federal courthouse in Central Islip on Sept. 19, 2012. Credit: Steve Pfost

The families of two men exonerated in a 1984 rape and murder testified Tuesday about the serious harm they said had been done to themselves and the two men by the 17 years of wrongful imprisonment.

"He's very different from the person I knew," in high school, said Margaret Neidecker Restivo, who was a close childhood friend of one of the freed men, John Restivo. She married him shortly after he got out of prison in 2003.

Restivo, and the other exonerated man, Dennis Halstead, are the plaintiffs in a civil case in federal court in Central Islip seeking unspecified millions of dollars in damages from Nassau County. Their convictions, and that of John Kogut, were overturned after their DNA failed to match the newly discovered DNA taken from the body of Theresa Fusco, 16, of Lynbrook, the victim. Kogut is not part of this trial. The three were sentenced to more than 30 years and up to life in prison.

A jury found Friday that a now-deceased Nassau police detective, Joseph Volpe, had violated the plaintiffs' civil rights by withholding and planting evidence in the case. But jurors must still decide whether the men are entitled to monetary damages.

Halstead's four children, Melissa Lullo and Jason, Heather and Taylor Halstead, who were youngsters when their father was sent to prison, are also plaintiffs. They are seeking damages for the effect on their lives from the loss of their father's full-time presence.

In her testimony in federal court in Central Islip, Neidecker Restivo said John Restivo was a normal, happy person in high school. But now her husband has nightmares, "wakes up in hot sweats and can't get back to sleep," she said.

He has become "extremely paranoid," suspicious of other people, and "flies off the handle at little things," she added. Her husband also now has a fear of germs, and takes "four showers a day that I know of," she said.

A psychiatrist testifying for John Restivo, Steven Simring, who teaches at Columbia and Cornell universities, said that the plaintiff suffers from chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder. The panic disorder makes him afraid of being outside in open spaces, Simring said.

Jason Halstead testified that as a result of his father's imprisonment, other parents would not let their children be his friends and he never had a date in high school.

"No way I was going to get a date [with] my father back in jail for rape and murder," Halstead said.

His father also now has a serious drinking problem, Halstead said.

However, both Jason Halstead and Lullo testified, while he was in prison, they still thought of him as a good father. He and his children regularly exchanged phone calls and letters, and they visited him frequently, they testified.

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