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Keith Bush sues Suffolk County over 1976 wrongful conviction

Keith Bush was a 17-year-old junior at Bellport High School when Suffolk authorities charged him with killing Sherese Watson, 14, after a late-night house party in North Bellport. For the past 44 years, Keith Bush has claimed he was an innocent man, ever since he was accused and convicted of the 1975 Suffolk County sex-related murder.  (Credit: Newsday Staff)

Keith Bush, recently exonerated in the 1975 murder of a North Bellport teenager, has filed a damages lawsuit against Suffolk County for false arrest, malicious prosecution and other alleged wrongdoing by law-enforcement authorities that resulted in him spending 33 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

No dollar amount was requested, but experts have said Bush could eventually receive $30 million or more in compensation.

In May, a Suffolk judge dropped all charges against Bush, 62, in one of the longest-running “innocent man” cases in U.S. history. In the wake of the Bush case, Suffolk’s Conviction Integrity Bureau is reviewing more than 100 other claims of innocence in previous Suffolk convictions.

“Keith Bush sustained severe mental and emotional injuries and anguish” from his decadeslong imprisonment, even though Bush was “actually innocent of the crimes with which he was convicted,” according to Bush’s lawsuit filed with the state Court of Claims. Without mentioning a specific dollar amount, Bush’s legal action seeks to “recover substantial damages for this frightening and horrendous injustice.”

The Suffolk District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau recommended Bush’s exoneration on May 22 after his attorney, Adele Bernhard, argued that the prosecutor and police at Bush’s 1976 trial conspired to hide evidence of another suspect, John W. Jones Jr., in the murder of 14-year-old Bellport High school student Sherese Watson. “Inexcusably, for 40 years, Suffolk County law enforcement hid compelling evidence pointing to the likely perpetrator,” the lawsuit alleges.

A few days before the judge exonerated Bush, a yearlong Newsday investigation revealed many allegations of wrongdoing in the case and how evidence of Bush’s innocence remained hidden or ignored for decades by Suffolk authorities.

Both Bush and his attorney Bernhard declined to comment on the state lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages to be determined under the Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act of 1984. A spokesman for the Suffolk police also declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Current Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini and County Executive Steve Bellone have criticized past practices by Suffolk law enforcement that have been deemed improper or unlawful. On election night earlier this month, Bellone warned that damages lawsuits resulting from Suffolk’s “culture of corruption” in the past, including the Bush case, could cost taxpayers many dollars in the future.

According to the lawsuit, the alleged wrongdoing by Suffolk law-enforcement authorities includes:

  • Making up testimony through force. Suffolk police “manufactured false evidence by coercing” the then 17-year-old Bush through “brute force and physical assault into signing a false statement the [Suffolk police] wrote for his signature — a statement that was never true and incorporated facts later proved to be false,” the lawsuit says. “Detectives provided false evidence” and “coerced witnesses” to lie. At Bush’s 1976 trial, detectives “falsely denied using force” to obtain a purported confession from Bush. In fact, during their interrogation, detectives “hit Mr. Bush, kicked him in the groin, suggested that he might die in police custody and battered his head with a large telephone-type book.” After nearly seven hours of abuse, Bush “yielded to their demands, fearing for his life and safety” and signed the false confession.
  • Failing to check out a key witness’ recantation. Maxine Bell, a key trial witness who testified she saw Bush with Watson prior to murder, later recanted at an early 1980s appeal hearing, saying that police “had forced her to implicate” Bush. But the lawsuit says the Suffolk DA’s office at that time “did not investigate her {Bell’s] claims of coercion” allowing the conviction to be affirmed and keeping Bush in jail for many more years.
  • Forensic experts misled the jury. A member of the Suffolk Medical Examiner’s office “testified that an afro pick comb that [Suffolk police] removed from members of Mr. Bush’s family had caused injuries to the victim’s back — thus connecting Mr. Bush to the crime,” the lawsuit says. “However, that testimony was false and medical evidence has since established that the comb did not and could not have caused those injuries.” A similar conclusion appeared in the CIB’s report about the Bush case.
  • Hiding evidence about another potential suspect. Suffolk police and prosecutors “intentionally, recklessly and/or grossly negligently procured Mr. Bush’s conviction by manufacturing false evidence and failing to disclose exculpatory evidence” about Jones. The lawsuit says that Bush learned of Jones — who admitted to tripping over Watson’s body on the night of the January 1975 murder — only through Freedom of Information requests made to police and the Suffolk DA’s office in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Much of Bush’s damages lawsuit cites the lengthy CIB report released last May about the Bush case as well as mentioning previous reports about wrongdoing by Suffolk homicide detectives and prosecutors that appeared in a 1986 Newsday series and a subsequent 1989 state Commission of Investigation report. In subsequent years, detectives who handled Bush’s arrest case were later “the subject of multiple investigations and discipline for coercing other similarly situated individuals to falsely confess,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit cites evidence of racial bias against Bush, who had never been in trouble before with the law. “Instead of proof, investigating detectives simply fantasized about what might have happened and selected Mr. Bush to target, based on what was essentially their hunch — a hunch informed not by facts but by their biased attitude about the neighborhood they were charged with serving and protecting,” the lawsuit alleges.

The suit also provided a glimpse of Bush’s life spent in “some of the most violent maximum-security prisons in New York”, including upstate facilities in Attica, Wende, Elmira, Auburn and Greenhaven. “Through nearly a lifetime incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Bush was deprived of the opportunity to attend school outside the prison system, to learn a viable trade, or to marry and build a family,” the lawsuit says. “He lived in constant terror of assault. He spent many years enduring the horrible loneliness and boredom of solitary confinement where he was placed for his own protection.”

Citing his bouts of depression and other emotional damage, the lawsuit says Bush “suffered the shame of knowing that family, friends correctional officers, as well as other inmates believed that he had raped and murdered a young girl."

On Oct. 29, Bush and his attorney attended an initial hearing in Hauppauge about his lawsuit in state Court of Claims, which was first filed in July shortly after his exoneration. He is expected to file a similar federal lawsuit soon.

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