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Man exonerated in murder seeks independent probe

Keith Bush, seen here on Oct. 13, 2018,

Keith Bush, seen here on Oct. 13, 2018, was recently exonerated after having served 33 years in prison for a 1975 murder. He wants to know which officials knew about another potential suspect in that murder case. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Keith Bush, recently exonerated in one of the longest-running “innocent man” murder cases in U.S. history, is now calling for an independent investigation to determine who in Suffolk County law-enforcement may have known about the other possible suspect in the January 1975 murder of North Bellport teenager Sherese Watson.

Over the past four decades, various Suffolk police and prosecutors had access to Bush’s homicide files containing incriminating documents about the other potential suspect, John W. Jones Jr. Yet this evidence remained unknown publicly until disclosed in May.

“It’s amazing that this case fell into so many hands over the years and no one said anything about John Jones,” said Bush, 62, recalling fateful turning points since his arrest 44 years ago.

On May 22, a Suffolk judge cleared Bush’s name after District Attorney Timothy Sini’s Conviction Integrity Bureau determined that the lead prosecutor in Bush’s 1976 trial, Gerard Sullivan, who died in 1993, deliberately hid evidence about Jones. This suppression of evidence included a signed police statement in which Jones admitted tripping over Watson’s body at the murder scene, leaving behind his black plastic comb, as well as a follow-up lie detector report. After examining all the available evidence, including the Jones documents, the CIB determined that Bush was “actually innocent” of Watson’s murder.

But because his case involves some Suffolk legal officials still active and on the scene, Bush is calling for the independent review of his case — outside the purview of the district attorney’s office — to investigate allegations that others, including former District Attorney Thomas Spota, may have acted improperly.

“I think the cover-up is deeper than just (former prosecutor Gerard] Sullivan, and that others looked the other way over the years,” Bush said. “They apologize for the foul play in this case, but there was nothing about holding people accountable for their actions. If there’s no accountability here, it sends a terrible message.”

Some legal ethics experts agree with Bush that an outside investigator is needed — partly because Sini’s office faces too many possible ethical conflicts, but also because Sini must interact everyday with Suffolk police and judges.

“It seems to me the safer course is to have an outside inspection, simply because of potential conflicts of interest and concerns about the integrity in general,” said Columbia Law School professor Bernard Harcourt. “Working with the police, they [the district attorney’s office] have a vested interest in a good relationship.” Harcourt said an independent review could be done at the direction of the state attorney general or a top judge.

However, Sini expressed confidence in his CIB, its own three-person review panel, and its ability for “continuous dialogue” with legal experts and those who allege they were wrongfully convicted.

“From the moment we created the Conviction Integrity Bureau, the goal was to collaborate with stakeholders and outside independent experts, which is why we created the Independent Review Panel, made up of experts in ethics and defense advocacy, to review our findings in each case and make recommendations on how to proceed,” Sini said in a statement.

The evidence about Jones, gathered in the 1970s by Suffolk homicide detectives, remained undisclosed for decades, despite several court hearings since then in which Bush claimed his innocence. It came to light only after Bush’s current lawyer filed a Freedom of Information lawsuit for his complete criminal file. The resulting CIB investigation recommended that Bush’s conviction for murder and attempted sex abuse be thrown out in part because Sullivan failed to disclose evidence about Jones at the 1976 trial as required legally.

Although Jones had been questioned by police before Bush’s 1976 trial, neither Bush’s trial judge, the jury nor Bush’s defense lawyer ever found out about Jones' existence.

Instead, in 1976, Bush was convicted, went to prison for 33 years, and spent another decade on parole as a convicted sex-offender.

Just who knew about Jones’ existence in Suffolk homicide files remains of concern to the CIB investigators as well as Bush. An initial draft of the Bush exoneration report said “the CIB continues to investigate who knew what and when concerning the existence of Jones’s statement” until that line was removed because of caution about the ongoing probe.

A Newsday review of court documents shows several Suffolk officials were involved at various points during the 44-year history of the Bush case, though it remains unclear how much they may have known about Jones, if anything. The list of past and present officials with access to Bush’s file include:

  • Former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota. In the mid-2000s, Spota’s office resisted attempts by Bush’s lawyer to exonerate him, calling it a “fishing expedition.” Spota, a former friend and law partner of Sullivan, recently told Newsday he didn’t recall anything about the Bush case. In an interview with CIB investigators, a retired Suffolk homicide detective suggested Spota knew about the case. “Why is this thing being opened again, I thought Tommy Spota took care of this?” said the detective, August Stahl, who helped put together Bush’s alleged 1975 confession, according to the CIB report. Currently Spota faces federal corruption charges of covering up wrongdoing by former Suffolk Chief of Police James Burke. Bush said Spota’s role in his murder conviction review should be investigated. Though Spota talked with Newsday, the CIB did not interview the former district attorney about the Bush case. Federal officials declined to comment.
  • Two current judges who previously served as Suffolk assistant district attorneys — Suffolk County Judge Paul Hensley and Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice John B. Collins. As a Suffolk ADA in 1989, Hensley approved a Freedom of Information Law request from Bush for his criminal file. Bush said Hensley’s response should have included documents about Jones at the Watson murder scene, but there was no such mention. Hensley, who was disciplined in 2012 by state judicial authorities for “reckless behavior” in a separate gambling incident, declined to be interviewed for this story. In a separate 2005 exchange, Collins was a top S­uffolk prosecutor who responded to Bush’s request for DNA testing on the black plastic comb found at the murder scene, which was later linked to Jones. Crime lab testing showed that DNA found on Watson’s body was not from Bush but instead from another unidentified male. In these two separate attempts by Bush to prove his innocence, no documents about Jones were disclosed. Collins declined to comment because of his current role as a judge.
  • Suffolk police involved in the Bush case. Former Det. Dennis Rafferty, who oversaw Bush’s 1975 confession, acknowledged to the CIB through his attorney that he took Jones’ 1975 incriminating statement and accompanied Jones for a lie-detector test. According to the CIB report, Rafferty said Sullivan, Stahl and “and others” in the Suffolk police and District Attorney’s office “were aware of the existence of Jones in 1975.” When interviewed by the CIB, Stahl showed “racial animus” toward Bush, calling him a racial epithet, and denied knowing anything about the other suspect Jones, the report said. However, when interviewed by Newsday, Stahl acknowledged knowing about Jones but said he didn’t consider him a serious suspect at the time. Rafferty declined to be interviewed for this story.
  • Suffolk prosecutors, past and present, with access to the Bush files. At an early 1980s hearing, when a key witness recanted and said she lied at Bush’s 1976 trial, nothing came up about Jones. Bush said the recantation should have prompted a complete review of his case file, which presumably would have revealed the Jones documents. However, the hearing’s prosecutor, William Keahon, now in private practice, said the CIB report shows nothing improper was done at that hearing, which was focused primarily on the legal “probable cause” issue involving Bush’s alleged police confession, and that he could not remember anything else from the nearly 40-year-old hearing. During the mid-2000s, prosecutor Rosalind C. Gray, a current member of the district attorney’s office, handled repeated efforts by Bush to test DNA from the murder scene, including from the black plastic comb linked to Jones, yet none of the documents about Jones was disclosed in court. Retired State Supreme Court Justice Martin I. Efman, who presided over those DNA hearings, said he was “surprised” that the Jones documents in Bush’s file were never revealed. “I don’t know how it could not have been found,” Efman told Newsday. Gray was unavailable for comment, according to a DA spokesman.

In reaction to Bush’s exoneration, Sini’s office along with the New York Law School legal clinic that championed Bush’s case recently filed for a U.S. Justice Department grant to study Suffolk’s methods of handling homicide and other felonies in an effort to avoid similar wrongful convictions. 

“Our relentless pursuit of creating a national model has led us to further collaborate and partner with the New York Law School’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic in applying for a grant that would allow them to assist us in the review and investigation of our Conviction Integrity Bureau cases.” Sini said. “We will continue to collaborate with stakeholders and implement best practices to make the Suffolk County Conviction Integrity Bureau a national model.”

But even those who praise Sini’s role in the exoneration of Bush nevertheless say Suffolk’s long history of law-enforcement problems demands an outside probe of possible official wrongdoing in the way Bush’s case was handled.

“This [Bush] case is a perfect storm of things that could go wrong,” said Hofstra University law professor Ellen Yaroshefsky, who heads its legal ethics institute. “If you want to restore public trust, it’s essential to have some sort of independent review.”

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