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Wrongfully convicted man testifies on prison life

Dennis Halstead arrives at federal court in Central

Dennis Halstead arrives at federal court in Central Islip on Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Credit: Ed Betz

A man exonerated in the 1984 murder and rape of a Lynbrook teen Wednesday testified about how he suffered in prison after a wrongful conviction, while lawyers argued over whether his psychological issues were caused by incarceration or childhood trauma.

Dennis Halstead, now 59, said that in the 17 years he was behind bars, he was assaulted several times by inmates in the Nassau County jail and later by prisoners in various state facilities. He said he was also once attacked by a correction officer in the county jail because of the heinous nature of the crimes he was wrongly convicted of.

His initial experience in Attica was "frightening," and in other prisons, Halstead testified in federal court in Central Islip, "I never stopped being afraid." He lived most of the time in a metal cell, 8 feet by 6 feet, furnished with a wash basin, toilet and mattress. To avoid being attacked by other prisoners, he stayed much of the time in his cell.

Attica, he said, had "all kinds of bad smells . . . always noisy [with prisoners] screaming and yelling."

At times, Halstead said, he came close to committing suicide. But Halstead said what kept him from doing so were "my children."

Halstead and John Restivo, now 56, and a third man, John Kogut, not involved in the current civil rights trial, were convicted in the murder and rape of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco in Lynbrook. Kogut was acquitted in a retrial, and charges against the other two were dropped in 2005 after newly discovered DNA from semen taken from Fusco's body did not match theirs.

Last week the jury found that the plaintiffs' civil rights were violated by a now-deceased Nassau County detective, Joseph Volpe, who, it found, planted some evidence and withheld other evidence.

In addition to the millions of dollars in damages sought by Halstead and Restivo, Halstead's four children, Melissa Lullo and Jason, Heather and Taylor Halstead, are seeking damages for the loss of their father's full-time presence. The six-woman, three-man jury now has to decide whether to award damages.

In Halstead's case, the attorney for Nassau County, Louis Freeman, attempting to undercut any award, pointed out that Halstead had many psychological problems before he was imprisoned and they have continued after his release.

Several hours in court yesterday were given to a video deposition by Elizabeth Ford, a psychiatrist for Halstead, in which she was questioned by both Freeman and Nick Brustin, the lead attorney for Halstead, Restivo and the Halstead children.

Ford, the director of forensic psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and the Bellevue Hospital Center, was not able to testify in person this week. Based on her examination of Halstead, Ford said he had psychological problems since childhood caused by a host of traumas. These included, she said, the death of a 3-year-old brother when Halstead was about 5 years old, several attempts or threats of sexual abuse by adults or an older child, and being placed in a group home at the age of 12 after his mother was ruled unfit.

Ford also said Halstead had a problem with alcohol before imprisonment, and now drinks to excess about "60 percent of the time."

Halstead has not responded well to treatment for alcohol abuse, she said, and his years in prison have hampered his attempts to overcome alcohol dependence. He also has eating and anxiety disorders in which he has become increasingly nervous and unable to sleep, Ford said.

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