A federal appeals court has upheld a $43 million jury verdict against Nassau County in a lawsuit filed by two men who were exonerated in the 1984 murder and rape of a Lynbrook teenager after serving nearly 18 years in prison.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan on Thursday upheld a 2014 Circuit Court ruling which found that the civil rights of John Restivo and Dennis Halstead had been violated by now-deceased Nassau County homicide Det. Joseph Volpe because he planted and withheld evidence.
The 123-page ruling said Restivo and Halstead “suffered grave harm from their 18 years of wrongful incarceration, including adverse psychiatric effects, loss of relationships with family members, and stigma due to the nature of the crimes they were convicted of.”
Restivo, Halstead and a third man, John Kogut, were convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco. The men were released in 2003 after newly discovered DNA evidence exonerated the men.
The men sued, saying they had been convicted on the basis of false confessions and planted evidence, and that evidence had been withheld.
In 2012, a jury in Central Islip found no wrongdoing by Nassau County police and declined to award damages.
But in 2013 U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert overturned that decision and granted a new civil trial to Restivo and Halstead based on faulty jury instructions.
Nassau County appealed, and in 2014, a U.S. District Court jury awarded Restivo and Halstead a combined $36 million in damages. The Court of Appeals Thursday also upheld $5 million in attorney’s fees along with other costs and interest.
Kogut confessed to the crime but a judge later ruled it was false and acquitted him after a retrial. He was excluded from the civil trial but his attorney was appealing.
“I fought for years to prove I was railroaded,” Restivo said in a statement. “And now, with a fair judge, and a fair jury, and now a fair appellate court recognizing that I was framed for a crime I did not commit, my faith in the system is beginning to be restored.”
Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann, an attorney for Restivo and Halstead, urged the county not to appeal the decision.
“We hope Nassau County will finally stop their strategy of delay,” she said. “Nassau County has spent millions on attorneys fighting this lawsuit while Mr. Restivo and Mr. Halstead — despite 18 years of wrongful incarceration and over 10 years of litigation — have yet to receive a nickel from Nassau County. They deserve to be paid right away.”
Nassau County Attorney Carnell Foskey said “the county is reviewing its legal options.”