Prosecutors in Long Island, New York filed a motion today to vacate the conviction of a black man who spent 33 years in prison for a murder they now say he did not commit, declaring that the case against Keith Bush was tainted by a coerced confession, a prosecutor who illegally suppressed evidence and racial animus by a lead detective.
The action marked a dramatic reversal by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, which for had long fought Bush’s efforts to reexamine his 1976 conviction, even as his steadfast refusal to admit guilt likely earned him an extra decade-plus in prison. Bush, who is now 62, was 17 when he was arrested. He was released on lifetime parole as a registered sex offender in 2007.
The motion will need to be granted by a judge before Bush is officially exonerated, but the filing details why the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau — a unit responsible for examining potentially unjust convictions — are seeking to clear him. The motion accuses former law enforcement officials of concealing evidence of a second suspect in the case, a murder of a 14-year-old girl. Prosecutors now believe that second suspect, since deceased, could have been the real killer.
As the case against Bush unraveled under closer scrutiny, a telling moment occurred last month, when CIB investigators interviewed August Stahl, one of the detectives who had arrested Bush.
Stahl, 90, told the investigators he remembered the Bush case, according to court documents filed by prosecutors, and stated: “That (expletive) n—– did it, there is no doubt about it; he should have been executed for it.”
According to the court filings, Stahl referred to murders in mostly-black neighborhoods as “misdemeanor homicides” and boasted that he had done his work as a detective in a way that would’ve gotten him indicted today. He also lamented to investigators that in his old age, “I can’t pound people the way I used to be able to,” the records show.
In an interview Wednesday with USA TODAY, Stahl denied making any of those statements. “Not true at all whatsoever,” Stahl said. “That’s the DA’s office. I guess they don’t appreciate working with the Suffolk County Police Department.”
Stahl said he is not a racist and that he has partnered with a black officer and served with black soldiers during World War II and the Korean War. He criticized the effort to vacate Bush’s conviction.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that I got the right person for the murder,” Stahl said.
The Suffolk County Police Department said in a statement that it “recognizes the importance of the work of the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau.”
The stark change in the handling of Bush’s case is an example of the power that a Conviction Integrity Bureau has to address injustices long after a defendant’s appeals have been exhausted. Similar units operate in law enforcement jurisdictions around the country.
In Suffolk County, District Attorney Timothy Sini was elected to the office following the resignation of his predecessor, Thomas Spota, who was indicted in 2017 on federal conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges in an unrelated matter.
Sini said he was “astonished” by the breadth of mistakes and misconduct in the Bush case, the first that his Conviction Integrity Bureau 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 said. “Here they had more than reasonable doubt.”
The motion to reverse the conviction follows an in-depth Newsday story published Monday in which members of the District Attorney’s Office discussed some of the flaws in the case.
The DA’s motion states that Bush, in an interview with Sini and other prosecutors, explained that he repeatedly refused to confess to the murder during parole hearings — and was repeatedly denied parole, resulting in a dozen extra years in prison — because he had learned a lesson after detectives had beaten a confession out of him when he was 17.
“I refused to let them do to me as a man what they did to me as a boy,” Bush said, according to the filing.
Bush was not available to be interviewed for this story. His attorney, Adele Bernhard, said that even as the previous administration stonewalled their attempts to reexamine the case, she and Bush never gave up.
“In this case, I thought I would ultimately get somebody to listen,” Bernhard said. “It was just too heartbreaking.”
On January 11, 1975, the body of 14-year-old Sherese Watson was found in a vacant lot in Bellport, New York. Her jeans were partly unzipped and she had small puncture wounds on her right lower back. A medical examiner later determined that Watson had died of strangulation.
Homicide detectives quickly honed in on Bush, who had no criminal record but had been at the same house party where Watson was last seen. Detectives Stahl and Dennis Rafferty had him taken out of school and brought to a homicide interrogation room where, Bush said, police beat him over the head with a “big book” and kicked him in the genitals.
He ultimately signed a confession stating that he had stabbed Watson with his hair pick and then strangled her to death after she refused his advances.
“I just wanted my mom,” Bush later explained as to why he signed the confession, which he said he did not read.
Bush made the allegation of abuse within two days of the interrogation, according to a medical record. Suffolk County detectives, including Rafferty, would later become notorious for such tactics.
A 1986 Newsday investigation titled “The Confession Takers” included allegations by multiple homicide suspects that detectives had beaten them with telephone books to secure false confessions. Three years later, members of a New York State investigative commission called another homicide confession secured by Rafferty “highly suspect” and noted that he once failed to test a bullet in a murder case because, as he explained, “every black guy in Amityville has a .22.” The commission members reported that they were disturbed by his “convenient talent” for producing the exact testimony and evidence that he needed to close a case.
Rafferty, through his attorney, and Stahl both denied to USA TODAY that they had beaten Bush, or any other suspect.
“My cases are done with physical evidence connected with the defendant, nothing else,” Stahl said.
Besides the Bush confession, which prosecutors now believe was coerced, Bush’s conviction in a jury trial relied on other evidence that the DA’s office considers problematic, according to the filing.
A witness who testified in court that she watched Bush leave the party with the murder victim recanted four years later, saying that she had made up the story because she was “scared and afraid” of police. Investigators have since checked her account with statements of others at the party and concluded that her initial testimony was indeed false.
Sini said that physical evidence presented in the trial — such as fibers that were said to link Bush’s jacket to the victim’s fingernails, or the finding that her stab wounds were made by Bush’s hair pick — relied on “junk science.”
The second suspect
During the four-plus decades Bush spent in prison or on parole as a sex offender, Suffolk County prosecutors resisted his attempts to re-adjudicate his case, even after a 2006 DNA test found that another man’s tissue, and not his, was under the victim’s fingernails. Prosecutors had also fought Bush’s public records requests for materials in his own case file.
But in 2018 — after Spota left office following his indictment for allegedly helping to cover up the county police chief’s beating of a prisoner — Bush received his full case records, including materials he and his attorneys say they had never seen before. The new documents referenced another suspect, John Jones, who came to the attention of the detectives roughly three months after they had secured the purported confession from Bush.
Jones had told the detectives that after leaving the same house party attended by Watson, he tripped over a body, dropped his own hair pick and left it at the scene, where it was later taken into evidence. Jones told nobody about the body he said he tripped over. The detectives had Jones take a polygraph and, satisfied that his story was truthful, discarded him as a suspect.
A year after the murder, Jones, then 22, was charged with third degree rape after impregnating a 15-year-old girl. According to a Newsday report, he would go on to be arrested several more times, including for stabbing a man, before dying in 2006.
Sini called Jones’s’ story “ridiculous” and said that he found him to be a far more credible suspect than Bush.
“Instead of investigating Jones, what do they do?” Sini said of the detectives. “They try to wash it and cover it up.”
Rafferty’s lawyer, James O’Rourke, said that the retired detective “maintains to this day that the second suspect was found not to be credible under the circumstances,” finding that Jones was a “limited young man” who didn’t fit the killer’s profile.
“The police seem to have just decided based on some sort of sixth sense,” said Bernhard, Bush’s attorney. “They didn’t investigate. They just decided.”
Bernhard and the prosecutors re-examining Bush’s conviction said one of the most disturbing aspects of the ignored second suspect was that his existence was apparently hidden from Bush and his attorneys for four decades. They consider it a violation of Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court decision mandating that prosecutors disclose all evidence that might be helpful to the defense.
“Who knew what, and when, is an important part of this investigation,” Sini said. The CIB concluded that Gerald Sullivan, the prosecutor in Bush’s case, was “fully aware” of Jones’s existence as a second potential suspect and didn’t disclose that to the defense. Sullivan has since died.
Sini said the CIB has received petitions to scrutinize about 100 other cases and that the unit is currently investigating about a dozen of them. Of Rafferty and Stahl, Sini said that “any petition that involves one of these detectives will be carefully reviewed.”
Stahl, the nonagenarian former detective, may not have grasped the tenor of the visit by the CIB investigators.
They found him at his home in a small private enclave in Yaphank, New York, which is owned by the German American Settlement League. Before World War II, its Nazi-adoring residents paraded with swastika-adorned flags down streets named after Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. Stahl previously served as a board member of the league, which barred residents who weren’t of “Germanic extraction” until two years ago, when they ended the policy in order to settle an anti-discrimination lawsuit.
The court filings in the Bush motion indicate that Stahl confided in the investigators that tragedy he’s experienced, such as sickness in his family, may be “payback for some of the bad things I’ve done in my life.”
According to the filing, he also asked of the Bush case: “Why is this thing being opened again? I thought Tommy Spota took care of this.”
Per: USA Today