Keith Bush at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, CT on March 30,...

Keith Bush at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, CT on March 30, 2019. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A federal damage lawsuit against Suffolk County has been filed by Keith Bush, whose conviction for a 1975 North Bellport murder was thrown out last year by a judge in one of the longest-running innocent-man cases in U.S. history.

Bush, now 63, was a teenager when he was convicted of murdering another high school student, Sherese Watson, after a late-night neighborhood party. Bush spent 33 years behind bars, all the time insisting on his innocence.

In May 2019, a Suffolk judge exonerated Bush after a yearlong probe by Suffolk District Attorney Tim Sini’s Conviction Integrity Bureau concluded that Bush had been wrongly convicted and that another potential suspect was known to authorities but never revealed at Bush’s 1976 trial. That other suspect, John W. Jones, died years later.

Bush’s lawsuit cites much of the CIB’s report detailing wrongdoing by law-enforcement authorities who handled his case in the mid-1970s, including allegations of beating a confession from Bush as well as evidence of racial bias toward him. 

“Mr. Bush did nothing to cause or bring about his wrongful conviction,” according to the 64-page complaint by his lawyer, Adele Bernard. “This grave miscarriage of justice was the direct result of egregious misconduct, recklessness and gross negligence” by Suffolk police handling the investigation.

Suffolk County Police Department declined to comment about Bush’s lawsuit. A spokeswoman said the department “does not comment on pending litigation."

If successful, Bush’s litigation for damages could be costly to Suffolk taxpayers. 

Though Bush’s federal lawsuit, and a similar state lawsuit filed earlier, does not specify the exact dollar amount sought in damages, legal experts say such litigation can amount to about $1 million for every year spent in prison for a wrongful conviction. In 2018, Martin Tankleff was awarded $13 million in federal and state payouts after spending 17 years in prison for a 1990 murder conviction that was later thrown out.

Suffolk faces other similar lawsuits and possible payouts because of previous alleged wrongdoing by Suffolk law-enforcement authorities.

Bush’s federal lawsuit underlines the devastating impact on him of being falsely accused and then spending much of his adult life behind bars. 

“He was unjustly jailed as a seventeen-year-old teenager who had no prior conflicts with the law, and not exonerated until age sixty-two,” the lawsuit states. “Bush was falsely labeled a sex offender, exacerbating the brutality of his imprisonment and denied assignments and opportunities available to other prisoners. He was turned down by the parole board 6 times because he steadfastly declined to admit to crimes he did not commit. Finally paroled in 2007, he had to endure the surveillance and restrictions for another 12 years as a level 3 sex offender on parole.”

A Newsday investigation about Bush’s case appeared shortly before his exoneration. Bush now lives in Connecticut and has appeared in public forums to talk about his experience and the need for law-enforcement reform.

“You look back and realize all the things you couldn’t do,” Bush recently told Newsday on the one-year anniversary of his exoneration. “You get the chance to taste what freedom feels like.”

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