'Truly humbled': Man cleared of murder after 33 years in jail

Keith Bush listens during a hearing to have his 1975 murder conviction vacated at Suffolk County...
Keith Bush listens during a hearing to have his 1975 murder conviction vacated at Suffolk County Courthouse in Riverhead, New York. Photo: AP
Keith Bush is no longer a convicted murderer or a sex offender, after a judge vacated his conviction after a joint application from his lawyer and District Attorney Timothy Sini.

"Mr. Bush, I cannot give you back that which was taken from you in the 1970s," Suffolk County Court Judge Anthony Senft said in a Riverhead courtroom filled to capacity. "But I can give you back your presumption of innocence."

"Thank you, sir," Bush said quietly.

His attorney, Adele Bernhard, who runs New York Law School's Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, thanked the judge and Sini.

"Sometimes, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of the universe does bend to justice, and it has in this case," she said. "A wrongful conviction affects the whole community, and takes a whole community to set it straight."

"I am truly humbled by this decision," Bush said in court. He later said he feels sorrow not only for the decades he lost, but for the Watson family, who will never know for sure who strangled the victim.

Bush was convicted of the 1975 sex-related murder of teenager Sherese Watson. But a report filed with the court on Wednesday by the Suffolk District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Bureau detailed how several former Suffolk authorities kept secret evidence of another potential murder suspect who may be the real killer.

The newly discovered evidence shows that "Bush is actually innocent of the crimes with which he was convicted," concluded Howard S. Master, who heads the bureau for Sini. Bush, now 62, spent 33 years behind bars and has been since paroled as a sex-offender.

The nearly 100-page report said Bush was wrongfully convicted during a 1976 trial because of several dubious pieces of evidence, including faulty forensic evidence, witnesses who felt intimidated by police, and a false signed confession that Bush says he was beaten out of him by homicide detectives.

Police denied any wrongdoing at the time, but the report said one of the former detectives, when questioned recently by Master's investigators, "alluded to use of coercive tactics" in putting together Bush's signed confession. Prior to his January 1975 murder arrest, Bush, then 17, had no prior criminal history.

Perhaps most significantly in throwing out the conviction, the report said then-Suffolk authorities violated legal rules by failing to disclose the existence of an "alternative suspect" John W. Jones Jr. -- who admitted in 1975 to tripping over Watson's body at the murder scene and leaving behind a plastic comb that he identified as his own. Although Jones was twice given a lie-detector test, Suffolk never mentioned anything about Jones at Bush's trial as required by legal precedent.

"The alternative suspect (Jones) may well have committed the offenses of which Bush was wrongfully convicted," said the report, which points out Jones' history of violent and sex-related offenses both before and after Watson's 1975 murder. The report labeled Jones, who died in 2006, as "perhaps the most viable suspect in Watson's murder."

The report painted a disturbing picture about how Suffolk authorities, particularly trial prosecutor Gerard Sullivan along with then-Suffolk homicide detectives, hid vital information in the Bush case.

The evidence about Jones "was suppressed prior to trial and was highly material to Bush's defense because it could have helped Bush establish that someone else had committed the murder, " the report concluded.

Recently, Conviction Integrity Bureau investigators questioned two former homicide detectives, Dennis Rafferty and August Stahl, who interrogated Bush in January 1975 and put together his signed confession. Through his attorney, Rafferty answered only a limited number of questions posed to him and denied any wrongdoing. But the report said that Stahl, now 90, displayed a "racial animus" and raised former District Attorney Thomas Spota's name in the matter.

"Why is this thing being opened up again, I thought Tommy Spota took care of this?" Stahl told the investigators, according to the court papers filed Wednesday.

Spota was a longtime Suffolk district attorney and a former law partner of Sullivan, the prosecutor in the 1976 Bush trial. Spota currently faces federal corruption charges and is expected to go on trial later this year. Spota told Newsday in a story published Monday that he doesn't remember the Bush case.

In addition, when questioned recently by investigators, Stahl used a racial epithet when first asked about Bush and saying he believed he was guilty.

The report said that Stahl currently resides in a small enclave in Yaphank owned by the German American Settlement League and that he is a former GASL board member. In 2015, The New York Times identified Stahl's league as an offshoot of 1930s pro-Nazi sympathizers group who built bungalows there as part of a pro-Nazi summer camp. The DA's report notes that the bylaws of this community required homeowners to be primarily of "German extraction" until a 2016 settlement of a federal discrimination lawsuit and a follow-up settlement with the New York State Attorney General.

When called for comment, Stahl denied any bias and said he had not talked with Spota about the case. He said his comment to investigators was a general reaction to the ongoing efforts by Bush to prove his innocence.

The report confirmed evidence developed over the past decade by Bush's defense lawyer, Bernhard, a professor at New York Law School. She argued that male DNA evidence taken from Watson's body didn't match Bush's and that a recanting witness, Maxine Bell, and other witnesses for Bush should be believed.

The report also found fault with 1976 trial prosecution testimony that claimed a metal comb discovered at Bush's home was used by him in the attack on Watson, who died from strangulation. Wounds on the dead girl's body showed that it didn't match the spacing on the comb's tongs. The report also said that testimony offered about fibers found at the murder scene is considered unreliable by today's forensic standards.

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