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After 44 years, a defendant finally gets justice

Keith Bush sits at the defense table during

Keith Bush sits at the defense table during a hearing at Suffolk County Courthouse in Riverhead to have his 1975 murder conviction vacated on May 22, 2019. Credit: AP/James Carbone

Keith Bush finally got justice in Suffolk County. 

It came after he paid an unjustifiable and terrible price: 33 years of his liberty and the denial of his life’s dreams.

A powerless, imprisoned Bush maintained his innocence all those years with the hope that someday there would be a few decent people who cared about correcting the wrongs of powerful but dishonest officials in law enforcement. Finally, some did.

In an emotional courtroom scene on Wednesday, Suffolk County Court Judge Anthony Senft told Bush, 62, that 44 years after he was first arrested, Senft was returning his “presumption of innocence” by vacating his 1976 conviction for the murder of Sherese Watson when he was 17 years old. The jury that found him guilty struggled for four days to reach a verdict, a record in Suffolk at that time.

The jurors never knew that police and prosecutors withheld evidence that came up a few months after Bush’s arrest. It indicated there was another suspect with a troublesome record, John W. Jones Jr., who admitted he stumbled over the body of the 14-year-old Watson in a field that night. They also were not told that a plastic hair comb found at the scene was linked to Jones. In a 1963 landmark ruling, the Supreme Court found that suppression of information that could be helpful to a defendant violates the Constitution. Compliance with what is called the Brady doctrine is a litmus test of whether a prosecutor’s office wants to seek justice or simply wants to win.

An extraordinarily detailed report based on evidence gathered by Adele Bernhard, an adjunct professor at New York Law School and director of its Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, was given to Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini. He determined that four decades ago, justice wasn’t sought. Senft agreed, concluding that Jones was “perhaps the most viable suspect” in the murder of Watson.

Bush was given a fresh start primarily because Bernhard listened to him.

Listening to Bernhard and reviewing the considerable amount of evidence she and her law students gathered was Howard Master, whom Sini named chief of his Conviction Integrity Bureau. Elected in 2017 on the promise that he would end the shameful abuse of power by his predecessor, Thomas Spota, Sini took action.

Bush’s story — from his arrest to his exoneration — was powerfully reconstructed last week by reporter Thomas Maier in a Newsday-News 12 special report.

Bush’s personal story is remarkable. But its compelling narrative also illustrates the larger story of how our criminal justice system can crush the accused many ways, such as improper detention, denial of due process and excessive sentences. Especially if the accused is a person of color.

Efforts to rebalance the scales of justice recently have taken place on the federal and state levels, including the reduction of mandatory minimum sentences, and stricter rules for turning over evidence to the defense, the main issue in the Bush case.

The investigation by Sini’s Conviction Integrity Bureau included interviews with two of the original detectives on the case. One of them, August Stahl, who wrote the confession Bush signed, made a reference during that conversation to punching defendants and coercing confessions.

And Stahl had no shame in continuing to express his racial animus toward Bush, even disparaging homicides in black neighborhoods as “misdemeanors.”

Sini, who took office in 2018, promised to hold prosecutors accountable for their failure to meet ethical standards. This is an attempt to correct the record in Suffolk County, where for decades some dishonest police and prosecutors thrived in a culture that rewarded swagger and brutality, one that relied on police confessions coerced by fists and sought prosecutorial victories won by hiding crucial evidence from the defense.

While the level of intentional misconduct in Bush’s case is stunning, there still are significant problems to be addressed. Sini already has dismissed one murder indictment because prosecutors failed to turn over required materials. His new bureau has received a total of 86 requests for review of convictions, 30 of which have been denied. Three are being investigated for constitutional violations of a defendant’s rights, and the remaining ones are being processed.

And while Bush’s case is four decades old, strains of the outrageous arrogance that surrounded Suffolk police and prosecutors still exist.

Former Suffolk Chief of Police James Burke was sentenced in 2016 to 46 months in prison on federal charges that he beat a suspect in custody in 2012. Spota, the former district attorney who is awaiting trial on charges of abuse of power, was additionally accused last year, along with his top aide, of trying to orchestrate a cover-up in the Burke case. The SCPD has been monitored by the federal government for decades to settle claims about discriminatory hiring practices and treatment of Latinos.

And Spota’s office perpetuated the harm against Bush by refusing to act to overturn Bush’s conviction more than a decade ago when new exculpatory evidence was presented to his office. Gerard Sullivan, who prosecuted the case against Bush, would have known of the Jones evidence. He was a former law partner of Spota. In Stahl’s interview with investigators, the legal filing quotes him as saying, “Why is this thing being opened up again, I thought Tommy Spota took care of this?”

The judges in Suffolk County also bear responsibility for allowing this toxic culture to flourish. It’s easier to go along with an entrenched system of political back-scratching that secures the careers of judges who don’t challenge police behavior or prosecutorial conduct.

What happened to Bush was a tragedy. His story is a disgrace and an embarrassment to Suffolk County law enforcement. And his case also will cost taxpayers dearly if Bush pursues a civil case seeking monetary damages.

This remarkable failure can happen when racial prejudice thrives, when integrity is replaced by arrogance, and when law and order is merely a slogan steeped in cynicism.

Keith Bush never stopped demanding that justice be done. No one should.