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Keith Bush: $16 million settlement can't erase pain of wrongful conviction

Keith Bush at his home in Bridgeport, Conn.,

Keith Bush at his home in Bridgeport, Conn., in 2018.  Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Keith Bush says no amount of money can erase the 33 years of pain and despair he felt in prison, while sentenced for a North Bellport murder he did not commit.

But Bush, who was exonerated in 2019 in one of the longest running "innocent man" cases in U.S. history, said Friday he was ready to move on with his life after reaching a $16 million agreement with Suffolk County to settle a federal lawsuit.

"It was never about the dollars," Bush, 64, told Newsday Friday, a day after a Suffolk legislative committee approved the settlement.

"It's about me trying prove my innocence and raise questions about what happened to me — and hopefully to prevent it from happening to other people," he said.

The full legislature still must vote on the bonding to pay for the agreement.

Bush was a 17-year-old junior at Bellport High School when he was charged with murdering Sherese Watson, a 14-year-old fellow student, after a late-night party.

Bush said he was beaten, coerced and forced to sign a false confession by Suffolk police.

Prosecutors also failed to turn over evidence that showed another man, since deceased, possibly was responsible for the murder, according to a report by the Suffolk County district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau. The crime remains unsolved.

Bush, who was cleared of the murder by DNA and other forensic evidence, was released on parole in 2007.

In 2019 a Suffolk County judge dropped all charges against Bush following a yearlong probe by the bureau.

Bush filed a false arrest and malicious prosecution lawsuit in state Court of Claims in 2019, which was settled this year for $5 million. In 2020, he filed a federal lawsuit against the county.

With the litigation concluded, Bush is ready to turn the page.

"There's been a lot of tension, pressure, stress and anxiety. So I am just glad that we are bringing this all to a closure," Bush said.

In a statement released by Suffolk County Friday, Bush said most wrongful convictions stem from the mistreatment of minors through witness intimidation and other practices.

Bush said state parole boards force minors "to spend many years past their minimum sentence just for maintaining innocence."

"What's really important here is an acknowledgment of what happened to Keith — what these police officers did and the kind of culture they created in the police department in the 1970s," said Adele Bernhard, Bush's attorney.

At a news conference Friday, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone described the Bush case as an example of systematic corruption that was "cultivated and facilitated" by former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota.

Bellone said Spota fought repeated efforts to overturn Bush's conviction. Spota denied knowing anything about the Bush case, according to a Newsday story in May 2019.

Spota was sentenced to five years in prison last month in an unrelated corruption case. He and his former top aide, Christopher McPartland, are appealing their convictions and sentences.

The settlement with Bush, Bellone said, "represents only the costs we can see. The tip of the iceberg. There is a cost to every injustice that occurs. A moral cost. A cost to the individuals and to their families."

Bellone said he called Bush last week and apologized for "what you unjustly endured" and promised to continue reforming the process that led to his incarceration.

Bush, who is completing an autobiography, said he plans to use the settlement money to take care of his family and, "to try to find a way to enjoy the rest of my life."

But in his statement, Bush said the past can't be erased with an eight-figure check.

"I lost everything of significance," he wrote. "No amount of money can make up for what was taken from me. Forty-four years of my life will remain trapped inside of a nightmare. If memory is the only gift, I can leave this world with, then mine will be scarred forever."

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