Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office is going to review the Keith Bush murder case — one of the longest-running “innocent man” prosecutions in U.S. history — citing concerns about possible prosecutorial misconduct, a spokesman said.
A yearlong Newsday investigation last May revealed evidence of alleged wrongdoing by Suffolk police and prosecutors in the 1976 conviction of Bush, who was convicted of killing 14-year-old Bellport High School student Sherese Watson. Shortly after, Bush was exonerated by a Suffolk judge and is now, at age 62, suing the county for wrongful prosecution.
“As the Governor has previously said — no one is above the law and any allegations of misconduct by prosecutors need to be taken seriously,” Jason Conwall, a Cuomo spokesman, said about the Bush case. “We will be reviewing the matter.”
Cuomo’s comments were in response to Newsday’s inquiry about the case and his newly created Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct, which is currently stalled because of a lawsuit challenging its validity by the state’s District Attorneys Association.
Bush, who has called for an independent prosecutor to investigate alleged wrongdoing in the handling of his case, said he was pleased by Cuomo’s interest and wants the commission to review it.
“I think it’s very good that he’s doing that — they can investigate a number of prosecutors who handled my case over the years,” Bush said. “It shows they are serious about holding people accountable and I’m very appreciative.”
During the 44-year timeline of Bush’s case, several Suffolk prosecutors — including former District Attorney Tom Spota — had access to incriminating information about another suspect, John W. Jones Jr., but it was never disclosed publicly until recently. Shortly after Bush’s arrest in 1975, Jones admitted to tripping over the dead girl at the murder scene. Jones died in 2006.
However, this exculpatory information about Jones was never disclosed by Suffolk authorities at Bush’s trial nor during subsequent appeals and hearings about Bush’s case until his attorney, Adele Bernhard, learned about Jones in 2017 and 2018 through state Freedom of Information Law requests. Bush was exonerated May 22 after a lengthy investigation by Spota’s successor, District Attorney Timothy Sini, and his newly created Conviction Integrity Bureau, headed by Howard Master.
Spota, who opposed Bush’s efforts to clear his name a decade ago, said he doesn’t remember the Bush case. Other prosecutors who handled the Bush case have declined comment. Gerard Sullivan, Bush’s 1976 trial prosecutor who later became Spota’s law partner in private practice, died in 1993.
However, any independent review of the Bush case by the governor still faces hurdles. Because of the legal challenge by the state DA group, Cuomo hasn’t yet named members to his commission. “The Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct is a matter of court litigation and hasn’t been formed because of it,” Conwall said. If it gets off the ground, supporters say the commission will have wide powers to investigate unethical behavior by prosecutors.
In the lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court in Albany against Cuomo’s commission, the state DA Association contends that it is an unconstitutional overreach and that local district attorneys are best able to investigate and punish wrongdoing by prosecutors in their own offices. Among those supporting Cuomo’s commission, according to a legal brief, is the New York Law School Post Conviction Innocence Clinic, headed by Bernhard, Bush’s attorney. That legal brief, joined by other criminal justice advocates, cites the Bush case as one of many reasons in support of a commission.
Sini, who is part of the state DA group opposing the Cuomo commission, declined comment. His Convictions Integrity Bureau is reviewing dozens of other claims of innocence in past Suffolk convictions.