Keith Bush is no longer a convicted murderer or a registered sex offender, after a Suffolk judge vacated his conviction Wednesday as a result of a joint application from his lawyer and Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini.
“Mr. Bush, I cannot give you back that which was taken from you in the 1970s,” Suffolk County Court Judge Anthony Senft said in a Riverhead courtroom filled to capacity. “But I can give you back your presumption of innocence. … I wish you well, sir.”
“Thank you, sir,” Bush said quietly.
His attorney, Adele Bernhard, who runs New York Law School’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, thanked the judge and Sini.
“Sometimes, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of the universe does bend to justice, and it has in this case,” she said. “A wrongful conviction affects the whole community, and it takes a whole community to set it straight.”
“I am truly humbled by this decision,” Bush said in court. He later said he feels sorrow not only for the decades he lost, but for the family of the victim, which will never know for sure who strangled 14-year-old Sherese Watson in North Bellport in January 1975. Bush served 32 years in prison after he was convicted of second-degree murder. Until Wednesday, he was still on parole and registered as a sex offender.
Bush was a 17-year-old junior at Bellport High School when Suffolk authorities charged him with killing Watson after a late-night house party. Watson’s body was found in an lot full of weeds not far away from the party.
Bernhard and the chief of Sini's Conviction Integrity Bureau, Howard Master, formally filed the motion to undo the criminal case against Bush minutes after the Arthur M. Cromarty Criminal Court Complex opened at 9 a.m. The motion sought to vacate Bush's entire criminal case noting that police and prosecutors hid evidence favorable to Bush and manufactured evidence against him, including a false confession that Bush only signed after what he said was a prolonged beating by police.
About an hour later, Senft's courtroom filled with lawyers, reporters and, finally, Bush's family and friends. Bush's mother, Lorraine Bush-Bolling, and fiancee, Dora Moore, came with him from Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he lives now.
Sini took the rare step of addressing the court himself. He urged Senft to grant the defense request to set aside Bush's case. "The law and justice so requires," he said.
Bush said in court that he was grateful to Sini's office for being the first to listen to him and Bernhard. "Someone sat down and listened to me," he said.
As the proceeding ended, the courtroom was flooded with applause. One woman shouted, "Happy day!"
The emotion carried out into the hallway, where Bush's mother sobbed in relief as she suffered from heart palpitations. Court officers cared for her and she was taken later to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead.
In a news conference moments later, Sini praised the investigation that Bernhard did for Bush. His office spent the past year verifying her years of work.
"Mr. Bush wouldn't be here without her work and her clinic's work," Sini said. "It's an honor to work with her."
He then turned to Bush, seated next to him, and said, "On behalf of the Suffolk district attorney's office and the law enforcement community, I'm sorry."
Sini recounted the investigation and what it found, including the discovery of an alternative suspect in the killing, John W. Jones Jr., who has since died. Detectives were aware that Jones had admitted to stumbling over Watson's body, but they hid all evidence of him from Bush's defense and the court.
Sini said his office is committed to fighting present-day crime, but he added, "None of that matters if we don't correct the injustices of the past."
He said later: "This was a window into a very dark aspect of Suffolk County's history. … I hope people are paying attention in the criminal justice community, including in my office."
The injustices in this case were many, Sini said. They included a coerced false confession, a young woman bullied into giving false eyewitness testimony about seeing Bush and Watson together, "junk science" suggesting fibers from Bush's clothing were under Watson's fingernails and the hiding of Jones' existence.
"Any person with brain functioning is going to investigate that person for the murder of Sherese Watson," Sini said. "But instead they washed it. They covered it up."
Bernhard said she took on the case after Bush wrote to her in 2006 and read the confession that he signed.
"I didn't believe a word of it," she said of the confession. "It made no sense."
She noted that the detectives involved in the case were mentioned in a "fantastic series" by Newsday in the 1980s about how Suffolk homicide detectives relied heavily on confessions, some of which were false.
And then she met Bush herself. "He is, as you can see, a humble, upstanding, lovely person. … He is a beacon. He was an inspiration to me."
When it was Bush's turn to speak, he spoke up for the murder victim.
"Although this is a special day, it is a sad day for Sherese Watson and her family," he said. "There is no closure for her family."
Bush said 44 years was a "lifetime" to fight for his innocence, and he was grateful that Bernhard and Sini's office restored his faith in the justice system.
"Because of my attorney, the current district attorney's office — they shook up my pessimism about the system," he said.