Keith Bush, 62, thought he’d or he would never be able to see the light of day again, hear the birds chirp at springtime, or inhale the smog filled New York City air, but 33 years later, a miracle happened. Justice was served–in his favor.
On May 22, prosecutors in Long Island, N.Y. filed a motion to vacate the conviction of Bush, an innocent Black man, who spent 33 years in prison for a crime they say he didn’t commit.
Prosecutors filed with the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau (CIB), a unit responsible to examine convictions that appear to be unjust. The motion accused past law enforcement officials to have hid evidence of another suspect, named John W. Jones Jr., since deceased, who is said to be the killer of Sherese Watson.
In 1976, when Bush was 17-years-old, he was convicted of strangeling and attempted rape of the – back then – 14-year old Sherese Watson, who was found dead in a vacant lot.
It is unclear, if Bush and Watson knew each other prior to being seen at the same house party in the Long Island neighborhood of North Bellport, the previous year. According to false eyewitness accounts, due to bullying by the detectives, Bush was later charged with murder.
Former homicide detectives August Stahl and Dennis Rafferty brought in Bush as a suspect and interrogated him to get a confession by beating him with a phone book and kicking him in his genitals. He then confessed, to first killing her with his hair pick and then to strangling her because she refused his advances, with that statement he signed a confession he didn’t even read.
“I just wanted my mom,” Bush explained later in regards to why he signed the confession.
District Attorney Timothy Sini of Suffolk County, discovered through the reinvestigation of the case, that the detectives Stahl and Rafferty knew of the second suspect and that they were aware of Jones admitting to stumbling over Watson’s body, but they allegedly concealed the evidence from Bush’s defense attorney, as well as the court. Jones told Stahl and Rafferty, he tripped over Watson’s body, after he left the same house party and dropped his hair pick at the scene – important information he kept to himself. However, the detectives had Jones take a polygraph and, convinced that his story was truthful, dismissed him as a suspect.
Stahl, 90 who lives in Yaphank, N.Y., a German-American Settlement League, said he isn’t a racist, but records show he served as a board member, which banned residents who weren’t of “Germanic extraction.” In 1937, its Nazi-supporting residents walked.
Stahl, told the investigators,” That (expletive) n—– did it, there is no doubt about it; he should have been executed for it.” According to court documents. The court documents also stated that Stahl said murders in predominantly Black neighborhoods were “misdemeanor homicides.”
He told USA Today that those statements were false.
“Not true at all whatsoever,” said Stahl. “That’s the DA’s office. I guess they don’t appreciate working with the Suffolk County Police Department.”
Stahl also mentioned he’s not a racist, and that he worked with a Black officer in the past, as well as with Black soldiers in WWII, and the Korean War. However, he wasn’t too fond of the opening of the Bush case, and criticized the efforts to vacate his conviction.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I got the right person for the murder,” Stahl told reporters.
“Mr. Bush, I cannot give you back that which was taken from you in the 1970s,” Suffolk County Court Judge Anthony Senft said in an occupied courtroom. “But I can give you back your presumption of innocence.”
Bush said in an interview that he feels despair for the Watson family, since it’s unclear who allegedly killed their daughter.
Sini, who was elected to the office after the resignation of former D.A. Thomas Spota, indictment in 2017 on federal conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges, was shocked by the range of mistakes and misconduct in the Bush case, the first that his CIB has sought to reverse.
“The worst thing a prosecutor or any member of law enforcement can do is go forward with a case when they have reasonable doubt about that person’s guilt,” Sini told USA Today. “Here they had more than reasonable doubt.”
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office fought against Bush’s efforts to have his 1976 conviction re-examined. Bush received lifetime parole as a registered sex offender in 2007, which has been removed from his record.
“I am truly humbled by this decision,” Bush said in court, USA Today reported.
Bush explained in an interview with the D.A. that he reportedly denied confessing to the murder.
“I refused to let them do to me as a man what they did to me as a boy,” Bush said in the filing.
Bush’s attorney, Adele Bernhard who runs New York Law School’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, was beyond thankful.
“Sometimes, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of the universe does bend to justice, and it has in this case,” Bernhard said. “A wrongful conviction affects the whole community, and takes a whole community to set it straight.”
“Mr. Bush wouldn’t be here without her work and her clinic’s work,” Sini mentioned in an interview. “It’s an honor to work with her.”
Cases like this of Bush and the re-investigations show the power the CIB has, and the injustice happening in our justice system. Investigations nowadays are different, than it appears to be decades ago, and many legal aid organizations, such as the New York Law School’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic (“PCIC”) help fight the injustice being served by either delivering the actual suspect, or by freeing the innocent. The re-examination of the case was able to point out flaws in the case, mistakes that could have been avoided, if the law enforcement officials followed procedures.
“In this case, I thought I would ultimately get somebody to listen,” Bernhard told reporters. “It was just too heartbreaking.”
After Bush made allegations of abuse in regards the interrogation process, which is on his medical record, many Suffolk County detectives, including Rafferty would later be known to use such tactics. However, both, Stahl and Rafferty told USA Today that those allegations are wrong, and that they have never beaten Bush, or any other suspect.
“My cases are done with physical evidence connected with the defendant, nothing else,” Stahl told reporters.
A Newsday investigation from 1986, titled “The Confession Takers” detailed all allegations by different homicide suspects, saying that detectives had beaten them with telephone books to get false statements. It was reported that commission members thought of Rafferty’s tactics to be a “convenient talent” for him to get what he wanted in regards to testimony and evidence.
After Spota left office in 2018, resulted by allegedly helping to cover up the county police chief’s beating of a prisoner, Bush was able to get all his case records, which showed evidence of the second suspect.
Prosecutors believe now, that Bush’s confession was fabricated and coerced by Stahl and Rafferty, besides other evidence the DA’s office thinks of being problematic, according to the filing.
The alleged witness, who testified in court, saying she saw Bush with Watson, told investigators, she was “scared and afraid” of police. Her statement has been re-examined and compared to other eye witness statements, and they discovered that her initial statement was indeed false. The other aspects of the investigations, such as the hair pick or fibers of Bush’s jacket, that linked Bush to the victim, were said to be “junk science.”
However, the most disturbing aspect of Bush’s case is that Jones existence was concealed from Bush and his attorneys. Bernard and the prosecutors who re-examined the case said it’s a violation of Brady vs. Maryland, the Supreme Court decision to command prosecutors to disclose all proof that could help a case to the defense.
According to Sini, the CIB received many petitions to investigate about 100 other cases, and that the unit is currently working on solving about a dozen of them. In regards to Stahl and Rafferty, Sini said that “any petition that involves one of these detectives will be carefully reviewed.”
“The police seem to have just decided based on some sort of sixth sense,” said Bernhard. “They didn’t investigate. They just decided.”