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Acquitted of 1984 murder, 3 men want $190M

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) Credit: Dick Yarwood

Three men who spent 17 years behind bars after being convicted of one of Long Island's most notorious murders in 1984 will be back in court Wednesday, this time as plaintiffs demanding $190 million from the police and prosecutors who put them on trial.

John Kogut, John Restivo and Dennis Halstead claim police forced Kogut to falsely confess to murdering Lynbrook teenager Theresa Fusco and may have planted evidence.

The men were released from prison in 2003 when newly discovered DNA -- sperm on a swab taken from the 16-year-old's body -- failed to match their DNA profiles.

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," famed Manhattan defense lawyer Barry Scheck, who leads a team of lawyers representing Halstead and Restivo, asserted in legal papers. "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."

Opening statements in federal court in Central Islip are scheduled this morning. The suit against Nassau County and law enforcement officials was filed in 2006.

Despite Acting State Supreme Court Justice Victor Ort's finding in December 2005 that he did not believe Kogut's confession or the physical evidence in the case, Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli said Tuesday that he still believes the three men killed Fusco.

"My opinion is that these gentlemen got away with something, and they should be happy about that and just go away," Ciampoli said. He said the county stands by its original evidence and investigation.

Fusco's mother, Connie Napoli, agreed.

"As far as I'm concerned, they're still guilty," said Napoli, who still lives in Lynbrook. "I know in my heart. I know in my brain."

Napoli, who has been subpoenaed to testify in the case, said it's "unbearable" having to revisit the details of her daughter's death again.

"It never seems it can be put to rest," Napoli said. "Going through the [criminal] trials was one thing, but this is for their benefit, and I don't want to be a part of it."

Spokesmen for Nassau police and prosecutors declined to comment on the case.

Kogut, then 22, confessed 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.

But papers filed 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.

"I am hopeful that the trial will shed some real light on what happened," said Hoboken attorney Paul Casteleiro, who with Mineola attorney Anthony Grandinette is representing Kogut.

"When you spend 18 years in jail on a charge you're not guilty of, I'm not sure you ever recover," Casteleiro said.

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