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Law clinic to help Suffolk investigate possible wrongful convictions

Keith Bush, right, leaves Suffolk County Court in

Keith Bush, right, leaves Suffolk County Court in Riverhead after murder charges against him were vacated on May 2019. Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk County approved Wednesday the hiring of a Manhattan-based law school clinic that championed the recent case of innocent man Keith Bush to help Suffolk law enforcement review other possible wrongful murder convictions.

With funding provided by the U.S. Justice Department, the New York Law School’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, run by attorney Adele Bernhard, will join forces with the Suffolk District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau to examine “pre-1990 homicide cases that present a high risk of wrongful conviction.”

The review will occur under an arrangement approved by a panel headed by Suffolk Deputy Executive Peter Scully. The panel needed to approve the clinic's hiring to work as part of Suffolk County government.

No county money will be used to pay the outside law clinic.

“This role is critical to the mission of the CIB and the overall mission of the [Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office] to seek justice in each and every case,” said Suffolk prosecutor Richard Weinschenk, in making the request for the outside hiring of the New York Law School clinic, expected to cost about $140,000 over two years. The money will come from part of an estimated $850,000 in federal grants earmarked late last year for this purpose.

Last May, the Suffolk CIB and Bernard’s law clinic convinced a Suffolk judge to throw out the 1976 murder conviction of Bush, citing wrongdoing by both the trial prosecutor and police. As a teenager, Bush was accused of killing a Bellport High schoolmate, Sherese Watson, and spent 33 years in state prison.

Following his exoneration, Bush filed a lawsuit against Suffolk for his wrongful conviction and lengthy incarceration. Bush’s lawsuit and other legal claims against the county in recent years for past improper actions by Suffolk law enforcement could cost as much as $50 million — what County Executive Steve Bellone has called “the corruption tax," placing more burden on the county’s already stressed finances.

Howard Master, who heads the CIB, has said his office has received more than 100 claims of wrongful convictions pertaining to many different crimes, including two previous murder convictions. In a recent interview, Bernhard said she expected to start helping Master and the Suffolk DA review other claims of innocence sometime soon.

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