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After Bush case, Suffolk police head moves to root out ethical problems

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart during an

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart during an event on April 15. Credit: Barry Sloan

Vowing that police perjury “will not be tolerated,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart has appointed a high-ranking supervisor to work with the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau to root out any ethical problems in prosecutions and said she will fire any police officer who deliberately lies under oath.

The move comes less than a month after a judge threw out the 1976 murder conviction of Keith Bush because of alleged illegal actions by law-enforcement officials.

“We hold our members to the highest standards, and anyone who intentionally provides false testimony will be prosecuted and the department will seek termination,” Hart said in a written statement.

To underline her commitment, Hart said she was assigning Suffolk Deputy Inspector Thomas Kenneally, the commanding officer of the Major Crimes Bureau, to work with the Conviction Integrity Bureau set up by Suffolk District Attorney Tim Sini “as it seeks the ethical administration of justice.”

The commissioner’s action comes after a Suffolk judge decided on May 22 to vacate the 1976 conviction of Bush, who was accused of killing Bellport teenager Sherese Watson after a neighborhood party. Hart’s statement was in response to Newsday’s questions after Bush’s exoneration.

In clearing Bush’s name, a nearly 100-page report by the Conviction Integrity Bureau showed that police and at least one prosecutor knew about another potential suspect, John W. Jones Jr., who admitted in 1975 to tripping over Watson’s body at the murder scene. However, that evidence was never disclosed at Bush’s 1976 trial. Now 62, Bush spent 33 years in prison and another decade on parole as a convicted sex offender.

The district attorney’s report last month questioned the validity of a written confession taken from Bush by Suffolk detectives in January 1975. Bush, then 17, said he was beaten by police and forced to sign the statement. On the witness stand, Suffolk detectives attested to the confession’s truthfulness and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. But Sini’s investigators found that Bush’s alleged confession was contradicted by forensic evidence that found it “materially false” and that one of the detectives who questioned Bush recently “alluded to use of coercive tactics.”

Hart’s comments come at a time when Sini has expressed similar ethical concerns about prosecutors who fail to disclose important information to defense lawyers and judges before trial as required under legal rules. The DA’s report in the Bush case criticized Suffolk’s then- lead prosecutor for never revealing evidence about Jones, whom prosecutors now believe likely killed Watson.

In recent years, similar issues of proper disclosure of evidence by prosecutors has affected other Suffolk cases. Earlier this month, Andrew Weiss, the head of Sini’s Public Integrity Bureau, resigned because of apparent ethical and legal violations involving a troubled arson case against two firefighters. Sini said his office won’t tolerate prosecutorial violations of long-established disclosure rules mandated by the courts, and praised Hart for her strong stance against any possible perjury by police in criminal cases.

Since becoming DA in January 2018, Sini has sought to separate his office’s actions from his predecessor, former District Attorney Thomas Spota, whose tenure included other murder cases that fell apart because of legal and ethical violations. One prosecutor, Glenn Kurtzrock, resigned for allegedly hiding evidence about another suspect in a 2017 murder case.

Spota is facing trial this fall on charges of covering up criminal wrongdoing by then-Suffolk Police Chief of Department James Burke, who had pleaded guilty to violating a suspect’s rights and obstructing justice.

In her statement, Hart also responded to two flaws revealed in the Bush case — an alleged murder weapon that was lost in the early 1980s while in police custody, as well as criticism that the department had not properly responded to Bush’s Freedom of Information Law requests in seeking all available records about his criminal case, including the evidence of another suspect.

Without commenting specifically on those examples, Hart said that her department is “utilizing cutting-edge tools in identifying, gathering, and securing physical evidence” and that the department “continually reviews policies and procedures” to make sure it reacts appropriately with FOIL requests.

The district attorney’s office said it will continue to review other possible wrongdoing in the way Suffolk has handled previous criminal prosecutions. “The partnership between the Police Department and the Conviction Integrity Bureau will continue to evolve and we are excited about that,” Sini said, after Bush’s exoneration. Despite recent improvements in crime-fighting, he said, “none of that matters if we do not correct the injustices of the past.”

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