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Suffolk DA probing claim of wrongful conviction in murder case

Keith Bush with Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini

Keith Bush with Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini at Suffolk County Court in Riverhead in May. Photo Credit: James Carbone

A month after Keith Bush was exonerated in a 1975 murder case, the Suffolk District Attorney's office is investigating another homicide conviction from the 1990s based on claims of possible innocence, Newsday has learned. 

The homicide case is one of three active probes of previous felony convictions being conducted by the DA's Conviction Integrity Bureau, according to its chief Howard S. Master. The unit was set up last year by District Attorney Timothy Sini to investigate claims of wrongful convictions.

Declining to reveal the convicted murderer’s name, Master said this latest review focuses primarily on claims of a coerced police confession rather than allegations of improper actions by prosecutors. The male homicide defendant served time behind bars, Master said, but has since been released on parole.

“This is not one of the cases where someone’s liberty is being affected, but it’s on his criminal record, no doubt,” said Master, declining to provide further details.

The CIB is reviewing available police and court records about the murder and consulting with the defendant’s attorney, who brought the conviction to the DA’s attention, Master said. The CIB’s review will take a few months before coming to a conclusion, he added.

In addition to the homicide case, the Suffolk CIB is also investigating claims of wrongful conviction in a second case involving a vehicular homicide and another involving robbery, but Master wouldn’t provide any more details.

Last month, a Suffolk judge threw out the conviction of Bush, 62, who had been accused of murder and attempted sexual abuse in the 1975 killing of a North Babylon teenager Sherese Watson. Newly obtained evidence showed Bush’s trial prosecutor improperly concealed police documents about another potential murder suspect, John W. Jones Jr., who admitted to tripping over Watson’s body at the murder scene.

Bush served a total 33 years in prison and another decade on parole as a sex-offender.

The CIB, headed by Master, conducted a nearly yearlong review of the Bush case before recommending on May 22 that he be exonerated. The Bush case is one of the longest-running “innocent man” cases in modern U.S. judicial history, records show.

As with the Bush case, this new claim of a wrongful conviction in the 1990s murder case involves an alleged confession taken by Suffolk police. “There is a similarity to Bush with [allegations of] a coerced confession but not a physical violation” by detectives, Master said.

At the time of his 1975 arrest, Bush, then 17 years old with no previous criminal history, charged that a signed confession was beaten out of him by police, which detectives denied at his trial. The recent CIB report discredited the testimony of the Suffolk police who put together Bush’s written confession and said one of the detectives showed a “racial animus” when recently questioned about Bush.

Bush tried unsuccessfully for many years to clear his name, especially after a key witness against him recanted in 1981 and when Suffolk crime lab tests in the mid-2000s showed DNA found on Watson’s body came from an unidentified male and ruled out Bush.

A year ago, Bush’s attorney sought once again to exonerate him, after a Freedom of Information Law request revealed long-suppressed documents about Jones. The CIB eventually agreed that Bush’s 1976 prosecutor had failed to disclose  information exculpatory to Bush's case about another potential murder suspect, Jones before trial as required legally.

Master said this 1990s homicide case doesn’t appear to include any such prosecutorial violations. The case was referred to the CIB by an attorney for the Innocence Project, a legal nonprofit based in Manhattan, which declined to provide further details about the ongoing review.

Suffolk’s methods of obtaining confessions in murder cases has been a longtime source of controversy. It was the focus of Newsday’s 1986 series, “The Confession-Takers,” which was later cited in a 1989 state Commission of Investigation report which faulted police and prosecutors for permitting improper actions, including perjury, in pursuing homicide prosecutions. Bush’s lawyer also cited the series and state report in seeking his successful exoneration last month.

Sini’s office has investigated other more recent examples of prosecutorial misconduct in murder cases and other serious felonies that fell apart because of legal and ethical violations. Sini’s predecessor, former Suffolk DA Thomas Spota, is expected to go on trial this fall on federal charges for allegedly covering up criminal wrongdoing by former Police Commissioner James Burke.

Since it began last year, the CIB has received more than 80 petitions for review of past convictions, and seriously considered about 30, including the Bush case. To help its ongoing effort, the Suffolk DA’s office recently applied for a $500,000 federal grant, which provides sophisticated DNA testing for post-conviction cases “in which actual innocence might be demonstrated,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

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