(SUFFOLK COUNTY, N.Y.) – Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy D. Sini today announced the exoneration of Keith Bush following an investigation by the Office’s Conviction Integrity Bureau (“CIB”), which resulted in a filing in support of vacating Bush’s 1976 conviction for the murder and attempted rape of 14-year-old Sherese Watson on Jan. 11, 1975, in Bellport. Bush, who is currently age 62, served 33 years in prison in connection with the murder and, until his exoneration, remained under state-supervised release as a lifetime parolee. His status as a registered level three sex offender, the highest risk level in New York State, was also vacated today.
The motion to vacate Bush’s conviction was filed in Suffolk County Court today by his defense counsel, Adele Bernhard, director of New York Law School’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, and an affirmation in support of the motion to vacate was filed by District Attorney Sini. Suffolk County Court Judge Anthony S. Senft, Jr. granted the motion, thus vacating Bush’s conviction and sentence and dismissing the charges that had been filed against him 44 years ago.
The filing in support of vacating the conviction and dismissing the indictment against Bush was the result of an exhaustive nine-month investigation and review of the case by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Bureau. The Bureau was created by newly-elected District Attorney Sini when he took office in January 2018.
In summary, the Conviction Integrity Bureau’s investigation reached the following conclusions in support of vacating Bush’s conviction:
Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy D. Sini: “The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office believes Keith Bush did not commit this murder, and we believe that justice was done today with the vacatur of Mr. Bush’s conviction and sentence and the dismissal of the indictment. We cannot give back what he lost, but it is our hope that this does some good in allowing Mr. Bush to move forward.
We are doing amazing work here in Suffolk County on a daily basis, creating a culture of excellence and professionalism and reducing crime to historic levels, but none of that matters if we do not correct the injustices of the past. We supported Mr. Bush’s petition today not only because that is what justice so required, but also because that is the only path forward for the criminal justice system in Suffolk County.
I want to thank the Suffolk County Police Department’s current administration and all the members of the Department who collaborated with us on this investigation. I want to thank the police commissioner, Geraldine Hart, who has been absolutely exceptional in many respects. The partnership between the Police department and the Conviction Integrity Bureau will continue to evolve and we are excited about that.
I would also like to the thank the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office, including Dr. Michael Caplan, our chief medical examiner, and Bob Genna, the head of our crime laboratory. I want to thank the members of my office who put so much work into this case, both in the Conviction Integrity Bureau – including Howard Master, Brendan Ahern and Amanda Goun – as well as folks who assisted in many other capacities, including our FOIL team, particularly Assistant District Attorney Al Croce, who was an unsung hero of this case.”
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart: “The Suffolk County Police Department is a professional law enforcement agency that seeks truth and justice in every case we handle. All police investigations are properly documented and the information is provided to the District Attorney’s Office to ensure they meet the obligations of discovery. The Suffolk County Police Department recognizes the importance of the work of the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau and it is for this reason the department has assigned a high-ranking supervisor to continue to assist in these important investigations.”
Suffolk County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Caplan: “The Crime Laboratory of the Suffolk County Office of the Medical Examiner was asked to reevaluate forensic evidence from the death of Sherese Watson; the Medical Examiner’s Office was also asked to review the autopsy report. The following is a summary of our opinions: One, the injury pattern observed and described on the victim’s back is not consistent with being produced by the wooden-handle metal comb; two, the puncture wounds were inflicted after the victim was strangled, which contradicts the sequence of events set forth in the confession; three, there is insufficient DNA evidence to establish the presence or identity of another individual from material recovered beneath Sherese Watson’s fingernails; and four, a blood sample from John W. Jones obtained in an unrelated crime was deemed to be unsuitable for comparison to material obtained from the victim.”
Keith Bush, as stated at the press conference on May 22: “I lived with a lot of pessimism about the criminal justice system because I’ve always experienced denial after denial, but there was something that drove me, enabled me to continue to fight and to continue to believe that if you persist long enough, ultimately you can succeed. I placed my principals and my ethics on trust and the truth, and I tried to live by that hoping that this day would arrive. I think that because of my attorney and because of the current District Attorney’s Office, that day has arrived. They shook up my pessimism about the system because now I know and I believe that there is hope and there are good people in the system, as well as bad, and those possibilities enable us to find justice. I would like to say to the District Attorney’s Office that I am truly grateful for your efforts and for all that you have done in this particular case, and I would like to say to the world that when you have people that do good things, justice will follow.”
Adele Bernhard, as stated at the press conference on May 22: “There was a new District Attorney out here, he had set up a Conviction [Integrity Bureau] and I thought to myself, ‘Let’s bring [Keith Bush’s case] to them. Let’s see what they think. Are they going to investigate this and be interested in this case the way I am?’ Lo and behold, they were. They dug in and went back and looked at every piece of evidence. … They did what we did and more, so of course we couldn’t be more thrilled at the quality and sophistication and the detailed analysis that they brought to bear in addition to the information that we brought to them.”
On Friday, Jan. 10, 1975, a Bellport resident named Pearl Jackson hosted a party at her house, located at 735 Bourdois Avenue. The party began at approximately 9 p.m. and ended at approximately 3 a.m. on Saturday. Approximately 75 to 100 people attended the party, including Bush, then 17 years old, and Sherese Watson.
Watson left the party at approximately 1:30 a.m. Saturday but never returned home. Her remains were discovered two days later in a field on the east side of Meade Avenue, between Brookhaven Avenue and Hampton Avenue. She was determined to have been a victim of attempted rape, physical assault, and murder by strangulation.
Detectives identified Bush as a suspect, despite his provision of an alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the murder, based on information that Bush was the last person seen talking to Watson before she left, as further supplemented by a statement from a 15-year-old runaway named Maxine Bell, which she later recanted, in which she described Bush leaving the party “hugged up” to Watson.
On April 14, 1975, Bush was taken in for interrogation by the detectives assigned to investigate the Watson murder. After several hours of questioning, during which Bush asserted he was subjected to beatings and other forms of physical and psychological coercion, Bush signed a confession in which he described trying to have sex with Watson, then stabbing her with a metal hair pick in the back, then strangling her when she screamed after being stabbed. After signing the statement, Bush was placed under arrest. Soon thereafter, police executed a search warrant in which they obtained a metal hair pick from Bush’s cousin that the prosecution alleged at trial was Bush’s.
Bush maintained his innocence through trial and testified in his own defense. After four days of deliberations, Bush was convicted on April 2, 1976, by the jury of Murder in the Second Degree and Attempted Sexual Abuse in the First Degree. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
In late April 1975, after Bush’s arrest but before trial, the assigned detectives became aware of an alternative suspect in Watson’s murder, a 21-year-old man named John Jones. The circumstances under which Jones came to the attention of police are unknown, however Jones’ criminal history records reflect that he had been arrested for unauthorized use of a vehicle on April 18, 1975, suggesting that Jones may have made statements at the time of his arrest or provided fingerprint or other evidence that linked him to the Watson murder.
On May 9, 1975, Jones provided a statement, witnessed by a detective assigned to the case, stating that he had attended the party at the Jackson home and had stumbled over Watson’s body while walking home to his sister’s house, losing his black plastic hair pick when he tripped over her. The black plastic hair pick had been recovered by police next to Watson’s body at the crime scene. Jones drew a map for detectives purporting to explain his route from the party to his sister’s home, which was due east of the party location, via Watson’s body, which was found several blocks west of the party.
According to police reports, Jones was also administered two polygraph tests in connection with the Watson murder: one as of May 1, 1975, which has not been located, and a second on July 7, 1975 that found Jones’ denial of involvement to display “slight indications of truthfulness.” The Arther method of polygraphy, which was used on Jones in the second test, has since come under considerable criticism as having significant scientific defects and is no longer considered reliable.
The existence of Jones as an alternative suspect – including his statement to police and the results of the two polygraph tests – were never disclosed to Bush’s defense attorney and were not mentioned at trial. Evidence concerning the alternative suspect was first produced to Bush via FOIL requests between October 2017 and April 2018.
Jones died in 2006 before Bush was able to learn of his existence as an alternative suspect.
Bush spent 32 years in prison for the murder. Upon his release in 2007, he was placed on lifetime parole and required to register as a Level Three sex offender, the highest risk level for New York State. Bush then spent an additional year in prison for a parole violation relating to his use of a computer with internet access, which he was using to write his memoir. Throughout his incarceration and post-release supervision, he continued to file a variety of direct appeals of and collateral attacks on his conviction, none of which were successful, as well as FOIL requests for records.
Bush filed an appeal of his conviction and was granted a post-trial evidentiary hearing in 1980. At the hearing, Maxine Bell, then 21 years old, recanted her testimony that she had seen Bush leave the party with Watson on the night of the murder. Bell testified at the hearing that her statement to the police and subsequent trial testimony were false, and that she had in fact not even been at the party on the night of Watson’s death. The judge presiding over the hearing ruled that her recantation was not credible, and it was disregarded.
In 2005, in response to a request from Bush, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office agreed to examine forensic evidence taken from Watson’s body and from the crime scene for the presence of DNA, including scrapings taken from underneath Watson’s fingernails following the discovery of her body. The testing found that Bush could not have been the source of male DNA fragments found in the fingernail scrapings. Testing of other crime scene evidence revealed another male DNA fragment that could not have come from Bush. The Office claimed that it did not exculpate Bush of the crime and opposed the request to vacate the conviction, and that request was denied.
In 2017, Bush’s attorney obtained autopsy reports and photos as well as materials from his Suffolk County Police file in response to a FOIL request. The autopsy records included photos and reports concerning the wounds on Watson’s back that were submitted to well-known forensic scientist Dr. Michael Baden. Dr. Baden opined that the hair pick purportedly used by Bush to stab Watson could not have caused those wounds, nor could the wounds have been inflicted prior to her strangulation, as set forth in the confession signed by Bush. Bush also obtained documents concerning Jones via FOIL between October 2017 and April 2018.
Following receipt of the documents, Bush submitted an application to the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office’s CIB in July 2018.
Bush’s application to the Conviction Integrity Bureau sought relief from his conviction on the basis of the newly-discovered evidence concerning Jones and post-trial DNA testing, as well as the violation of Bush’s due process rights to receive exculpatory evidence under Brady v. Maryland. The Conviction Integrity Bureau’s findings, based on an investigation of the challenges Bush presented in his application, are as follows:
1. Information About an Alternative Suspect was Illegally Suppressed
The investigation determined that exculpatory Brady information about a viable alternative murder suspect, Jones, was intentionally hidden from the defense by the lead trial prosecutor prior to trial, and no investigation of Jones’s potential involvement in the murder ever was conducted by assigned detectives. The CIB further determined that Jones’ account of his actions on the night of the murder was implausible and suggested that Jones was not being truthful when he denied involvement in the murder. The non-disclosure of the Jones statement constitutes a Brady violation, which requires that exculpatory information be disclosed by the prosecution prior to trial. Moreover, information obtained as a result of the CIB’s investigation indicates that Jones, who had a lengthy criminal history, an unlawful interest in underage girls, and a sister who lived in close proximity to the party attended by Watson, may well have committed the murder.
2. The Confession was Materially False
Bush claimed that his confession, which was the key piece of evidence against him at trial, is false and coerced. Among his support for the claim is the report of forensic expert Dr. Baden that the puncture marks on Watson’s lower back were not, and could not have been, caused by the hair pick that police recovered at Bush’s house and asserted was the weapon used by Bush to stab Watson.
An opinion written by Dr. Baden in 2016 and an independent evaluation of the evidence in 2019 by Suffolk County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Caplan both concluded that the hair pick could not have inflicted the wounds found on Watson’s back, due to the spacing of the tines, and that Watson had been stabbed after she had already been strangled, which proves that the order of events in Bush’s written confession is false.
The Conviction Integrity Bureau’s investigation also found evidence to support Bush’s claim that he was coerced into signing the confession.
One of the former detectives who obtained the confession from Bush, August Stahl, made statements to the Conviction Integrity Bureau when questioned in 2019 that tend to support the alleged use of coercive tactics in Bush’s case. He also made statements displaying racial bias against African Americans, including derogatory statements about Bush and Watson. Stahl currently resides in a private enclave in Yaphank that is owned by the German American Settlement League (“GASL”) and is a former GASL board member.
The new forensic evidence, facts related to Stahl, and recent scientific research that highlights juveniles’ particular vulnerability to false confessions collectively support the conclusion that Bush’s confession was materially false.
3. Maxine Bell’s Recantation Should be Credited
In the 44 years since Watson’s murder, not one witness has ever corroborated Bell’s later-recanted statement and testimony that she was at the Jackson house on the night of the party. In March 2019, prosecutors and investigators from the CIB met with Bell at her workplace. Bell stated that when she was questioned by police in 1975, police told her at the outset of the interrogation they knew Bush had killed Watson, and asserted that Bell was hiding information she knew about the circumstances of the murder. Bell claims to have repeatedly told them that she was not at the party and knew nothing about the murder. After several hours of questioning, Bell relented and made up a story that she believed was what the police wanted to hear based on information she had pieced together from the police and conversations with others about the murder earlier that day.
The investigation concluded that Bell’s recantation of her trial testimony should be credited, which provides an additional reason to vacate Bush’s conviction.
4. Other Evidence Fails to Support the Guilty Verdict
The Fiber Evidence Presented to the Jury was Unreliable: Among the evidence presented at Bush’s trial in 1976 was an analysis of fibers found underneath Watson’s fingernails by a Suffolk County Police detective that concluded the fibers matched those of a jean jacket Bush was wearing on the night of the murder. A fiber analysis expert currently employed by the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory assisted with the CIB’s investigation and concluded that even if the fibers matched a jean jacket, there is no way to establish with certainty that the fibers came from one particular jean jacket, and that the claim of a match was not supported by current forensic science.
DNA Evidence Tends to Support Exoneration: The recent DNA testing of evidence that resulted in extraction of male DNA, including DNA taken from Watson’s fingernail scrapings, has all excluded Bush as a contributor, and no male DNA found at the crime scene has been found to include Bush.
Bush’s Alibi Witnesses Affirm Those Alibis Now: Bush supplied the names and affidavits of several witnesses who would have supported his defense but did not out of fear of the Suffolk County Police Department. The CIB evaluated the affidavits, interviewed witnesses, and concluded that Bush’s alibi witnesses, some of whom were afraid to testify as a result of pressure from the assigned officers, continued to support his account of his whereabouts on the night of the murder. This provides further support for vacating the conviction.
Timothy D. Sini was elected as the Suffolk County District Attorney on a platform of reform just 13 days after the sitting District Attorney, Thomas Spota, and his top aide, Christopher McPartland, were federally indicted for obstruction of civil rights. Spota was the first sitting district attorney in New York State history to be federally indicted. Sini, who was the Suffolk County Police Commissioner when elected, had taken over the Suffolk County Police Department in 2016 following the arrest and indictment of the former chief of department, James Burke, for assaulting a burglary suspect who was in police custody. Sini was tasked with restoring integrity to the leadership of the department and ushering in a new era of ethical leadership in Suffolk County law enforcement.
Sini was then elected District Attorney with a public mandate to reform the office and the criminal justice system in Suffolk County. Upon taking office in January 2018, District Attorney Sini immediately launched a number of initiatives to reform the criminal justice system in Suffolk County and restore integrity to the Office, including the creation of a new Conviction Integrity Bureau, the first of its kind in Suffolk. The Bureau is tasked with reviewing past convictions, evaluating convicted offenders’ legitimate claims of actual innocence, and seeking to vacate wrongful convictions.
The Conviction Integrity Bureau is overseen by Howard S. Master, a veteran public corruption prosecutor who serves as Special Counsel to the District Attorney and Chief of the Office’s Special Investigations Division. Among his many achievements, Master, in his previous role as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (“AUSA”) for the Southern District of New York’s Public Corruption Unit, led the investigation and prosecution of former Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver and the largest fraud and kickback case in New York City’s history, which centered around its CityTime payroll program. He also assisted in uncovering former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’s involvement in a variety of corruption offenses. Following his tenure as an AUSA, which included service as Deputy Chief of the Southern District of New York’s Criminal Division, he served as Senior Enforcement Counsel for the New York State Attorney General’s Office.
District Attorney Sini and Master oversaw the investigation into Keith Bush’s wrongful conviction claim, which was the first petition received by the Office upon the launch of the Conviction Integrity Bureau. District Attorney Sini invested significant resources into the investigation, including tasking Master with leading the investigation and enlisting the expertise of one of his top bureau chiefs, Brendan Ahern, a Special Assistant District Attorney, Amanda Goun, and two detective investigators. This team of prosecutors and detective investigators spent nine months reinvestigating the 44-year-old murder case using new technology, previously undisclosed evidence, and the highest ethical standards. The investigation determined that significant prosecutorial and police misconduct occurred, including violations of the Brady rule, and culminated with the Office’s decision to support the motion to vacate Bush’s conviction.