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Suffolk DA to use federal grants to probe claims of innocence 

Keith Bush at his home in Bridgeport, CT

Keith Bush at his home in Bridgeport, CT on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. Bush served 32 years in prison for the murder of Sharese Watson, a crime he says he did not commit. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Reacting to the exoneration of Keith Bush, wrongly convicted of murder in one of the longest “innocent man” cases in U.S. history, Suffolk law enforcement officials have obtained two federal grants totaling nearly $850,000 to investigate other claims of innocence, rectify wrongful convictions, and study ways to avoid systemic problems exposed in the Bush case.

“I think it’s great and highlights that we want to become a national model,” said Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini about the two U.S. Department of Justice grants for his Conviction Integrity Bureau, part of the reforms that Sini promised following the Bush exoneration.

On May 22, Bush’s conviction in the killing of a North Bellport teenager was thrown out by a Suffolk judge after 44 years of trying to prove his innocence. A probe by Sini’s CIB determined that key evidence had been deliberately suppressed by the prosecutor and police in Bush’s 1976 trial — including the identity of another potential suspect. Bush, now 62, spent 33 years behind bars for the crime. 

The CIB is reviewing more than 100 cases of previously convicted criminals — including defendants in two old murder cases that are being actively reinvestigated, according to Assistant DA Howard Master, who oversees the CIB. Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart has pledged her support for the CIB’s effort.

With the new federal funding, Master said, the CIB’s review of these cases will be conducted in a rare “collaborative” arrangement with New York Law School’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic headed by adjunct professor Adele Bernhard, who championed Bush’s successful bid to overturn his conviction. Bernhard and her team of law students are expected to help screen cases where some past injustice may have occurred.

Master said this “partnership” between a prosecutor’s office and an outside law school is being done in only a handful of jurisdictions around the country.

“They [the New York Law School team] will bring a different perspective, and Adele has written and studied in this area,” explained Master. 

The Justice Department grants were made public last week at a Suffolk County Legislature hearing, which approved the hiring of a DNA lab in Virginia to conduct forensic analysis for the CIB starting in November. That DNA testing will be funded with a $574,000 federal grant, which will also pay for other forensic testing and investigators’ salaries.

Another $275,000 federal grant will help pay for the CIB’s partnership with Bernhard and the New York Law School clinic. Both grants are for a two-year period.

“The CIB aims to achieve and ensure justice by investigating claims of innocence,” Sini’s office said in seeking the county’s approval to hire an outside DNA lab, Bode Cellmark Forensics Inc. Master said the outside testing will help avoid extra work for the Suffolk crime lab handling current criminal investigations.

Master said each of the 100 previous convictions will be examined individually, some reaching back more than 20 years. But he added that the CIB will address any systemic problems, similar to those that arose in the Bush case. They include:

  •       Questionable statements to police by defendants and witnesses that may be contradicted by physical evidence or the existence of other suspects.
  •       Faulty handling of DNA and destruction of other vital evidence, such as an alleged murder weapon. 
  •       A thorough review of existing police and DA files to make sure that any exculpatory evidence pointing to a defendant’s innocence was not ignored or mishandled by authorities. 

“It makes us damn sure that we’ve looked at everything in a case and that nothing is overlooked or — God forbid — withheld,” Master said. He was referring to the lessons his CIB team of prosecutors and detectives learned from their Bush investigation. It was the first major probe by the agency created by Sini last year.

A nine-month Newsday investigation, published prior to Bush’s exoneration, revealed many flaws in his case and raised the question whether Bush was an innocent man who had spent much of his life in prison based on faulty evidence — findings later confirmed in the CIB report approved by Suffolk County Judge Anthony Senft Jr. “I cannot give you that which was taken from you in the 1970s,” the judge told Bush last May, “but what I can restore to you today is your presumption of innocence.”

Since becoming district attorney in early 2018, Sini has been critical of past practices by Suffolk law enforcement, especially his predecessor, Thomas Spota, who is facing trial on federal corruption charges. In a previous Newsday interview, Sini said “there was a culture that unfortunately infected certain parts of the Suffolk County criminal justice system” that he remains determined to change.

In their 93-page report recommending Bush’s exoneration, CIB investigators detailed how former Suffolk detectives obtained a false confession from Bush, which he says was beaten out of him. The report also explained how Gerard Sullivan, the prosecutor in Bush’s 1976 trial, failed to disclose important evidence about another potential suspect, John W. Jones. Jr.

Newly revealed documents obtained by Bush’s defense showed that Jones admitted to tripping over the body of Sherese Watson, a 14-year-old high school student, found in a nearby empty lot after a late-night January 1975 teenage party in North Bellport. These incriminating documents about Jones — who died in 2006 — remained unknown publicly until Bernhard filed a Freedom of Information lawsuit against Suffolk County.

Bush has called for a special prosecutor to review his case and identify all police and prosecutors who had access to his files and may have acted improperly during the four decades of legal wrangling over his case.

“If they had the CIB back then, they would have come to the same conclusion as they did now,” Bush said. “But the DA’s office back then normally opposed everything and never looked at this case sincerely.”

Now a free man, Bush will talk about his experience Tuesday at 6 p.m. at a Hofstra Law School forum.

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