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Keith Bush

Other New York Exonerations
Keith Bush hugs a supporter after his conviction was overturned.
On the morning of January 11, 1975, the parents of 14-year-old Sherese Watson called the Suffolk County Police Department in Bellport, New York. They were worried because their daughter hadn’t come home from a party at a friend’s house just a few blocks away.

The police began looking for Sherese, but it wasn’t until a day later that her body was found in a field not far from the party. She was face down and her pants were partially unzipped. There were numerous small punctures on her back and an autopsy would later say she had been strangled with enough force to snap the hyoid bone in her throat. Near her body, police also found a black plastic hair pick and a white hat.

As many as 100 young people had attended the party, and police learned that Sherese had left the party about 1:30 a.m. A few minutes later, some partygoers had heard screaming and shouts of “Rape” in the area near where Sherese’s body was found, but nobody went to investigate or called the police. Brenda Carlos, a friend of Sherese’s, told police that she had seen Sherese talking with a boy named Keith Bush about 1:15 a.m., but Carlos also said she had gone home before Sherese left.

On January 13, police visited Bush at his house. He was 17 and had no criminal record. He said he remembered Carlos leaving the party and Sherese leaving a few minutes later. He said he stayed until about 3 a.m., then got a ride home with some friends.

That same day, police interviewed a 15-year-old girl named Maxine Bell. Bell had recently run away from her foster home and was living in an abandoned building. She knew both Sherese and Bush, and many of the other people at the party from school. The statement she gave police said that she had been standing outside the party for several hours, and had seen Bush and Sherese leave together, “hugged up,” she would later testify, with Bush’s arms cradling Sherese around the neck.

On January 14, Bush was taken out of school and told he was wanted at the police station to look at photos of people who were at the party. It was a ruse, and when he got to the 5th Precinct in nearby Patchogue, Detectives Dennis Rafferty and August Stahl were waiting. Bush was questioned there, then driven 30 minutes away to the Homicide Division offices in Happauge. After being interrogated for several hours, he signed a confession stating that he had killed Sherese after she had refused his sexual advances. He said in the confession that when she pulled his hand away from her pants, he began stabbing her with his hair pick. When she screamed, he strangled her to keep her quiet.

Bush was charged with murder and attempted sexual abuse. He would quickly say the confession was coerced, that the detectives would not accept his denials or let him call his mother. He said the officers had beaten and kicked him. The police executed a search warrant on Bush’s house on January 14, and they recovered several items, including a metal hair pick that would be introduced at trial as the weapon that left the punctures on Sherese’s back. It would later be revealed that the pick police seized didn’t belong to Bush. A friend had brought it over after the police said they wouldn’t leave the house until they had an afro pick.

On April 18, the Suffolk police arrested 21-year-old John Jones on a charge of unauthorized use of a vehicle. It’s not clear how Jones came to the attention of the homicide detectives, but he was questioned about Sherese’s death and then given a polygraph test on May 1 that was determined to be inconclusive.

Jones was interviewed again on May 9, and this time he gave a more expansive statement. He said he was at the party and gotten drunk, and started to walk to his sister’s house (She lived east of the party, and the body was found to the west.). Jones said he stumbled over Sherese’s body in the field and in the process dropped his hair pick. He said he didn’t know the girl was dead until he heard about the death on the news. The detectives gave him another, more formal, polygraph test, this time with Richard Arther, who ran the well-known Scientific Lie Detection firm in Manhattan. Arther would say that Jones’s denials exhibited “slight indications of truthfulness.” Any further investigation of Jones was abandoned.

On February 16, 1976, Jones was arrested and charged with third-degree rape, after he impregnated a 15-year-old girl. Two weeks later, on March 1, 1976, Bush’s trial began in the Supreme Court of the State of New York for Suffolk County. The state’s case was built around Bell’s testimony, Bush’s confession, and forensic and physical evidence. Dr. Howard Adelman of the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office said the puncture wounds on Sherese’s back were consistent with the arrangement of the tines on the hair pick found at Bush’s house. The plastic pick was not entered into evidence at trial. A Suffolk County detective testified that three fibers recovered from beneath Sherese’s fingernails "did contain" fibers taken from a denim jacket worn by Bush.

When Rafferty testified, he denied any wrongdoing during Bush’s interrogation. He said Bush had freely and voluntarily given his statement.

Bush’s attorney, Harold Seligman, had no knowledge of John Jones and his statement to police. But when he cross-examined Rafferty, he asked the detective, “Officer, were there other suspects on the day you interviewed my client?”

Assistant District Attorney Gerard Sullivan objected, and the jury was excused while the two sides held a conference with Judge Mervyn Tanenbaum. According to an investigation by Newsday, Sullivan said there were no other suspects. He told the judge that “there was nobody else who was connected with the crime with any evidence.” Sullivan said that if Seligman took Rafferty down that path, it would open the door to him asking the detective about all sorts of raw evidence that might be damaging to Bush. Seligman backed off, and the trial continued. The existence of Jones as an alternate suspect would remain hidden from Bush and his attorneys for 40 more years.

Bush testified in his own defense. He denied killing Sherese, but his claims of being beaten in the interrogation room came under withering attack from the prosecution, in part because he appeared to be unsure of the details. When asked how many times he was hit, Bush responded, “I don’t know, I know I — I wasn’t counting, but I know it was a lot of times.”

Bush also had several alibi witnesses. Some testified that he had stayed at the party until 3 a.m. Others testified that they never saw Bell outside the party. But several alibi witnesses did not testify. They would later state in affidavits that the police threatened them with arrest if they helped Bush in his defense.

The jury had only one black member. It deliberated for four days, before returning a verdict, on April 2, 1976. Bush was acquitted of intentional premeditated murder but convicted of second-degree murder and attempted sexual abuse. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.

After his conviction, Bush appealed the legality of the maneuver that police used get him to the police station. His attorneys said he had been illegally detained and therefore the confession he signed after being interrogated shouldn’t have been allowed at trial. An evidentiary hearing was held before Judge Tanenbaum in November, 1980. Bell, whose statement had been used to establish probable cause, was now living in Alabama, and she returned to Suffolk County to testify. When prosecutors briefed her prior to the hearing, she recanted. Bell then testified at the hearing that she had been pressured by the police to place Bush at the party. She said she was young and scared, and the detectives had preyed on her fears. Tanenbaum was unconvinced. He said her recantation was not credible, and that there was probable cause to have taken Bush into custody.

Bush’s trial had happened before the use of DNA as forensic evidence. In 2006, he wrote to Adele Bernhard, at the time the head of the innocence clinic at Pace Law School. They were able to gain court approval to conduct DNA testing on fingernail scrapings recovered from Sherese’s body. Bush was excluded as a contributor to the genetic material; three years later, he was excluded as the contributor to genetic material found on the plastic pick. Inexplicably, the metal hair pick was missing; it had been destroyed in 1983.

Bernhard then filed a motion to overturn Bush’s conviction, citing both the DNA test results as well as a 1989 state report that had criticized the investigative tactics of Rafferty and other officers in the Suffolk County police force. But that effort failed. Prosecutors pushed back and called Bush’s motion a “fishing expedition.” They downplayed the test results and said it was possible that the scrapings had been contaminated. Bush’s motion was denied.

Bush had been eligible for parole since 1996, but he was turned down six times before being released in March 2007, in part because he would not admit his guilt. He would later say, “I refused to let them do to me as a man what they did to me as a boy.” He moved to Connecticut and was required to register as a Level 3 sex offender, subjected to constant monitoring of his movements and access to the Internet.

Bush was supposed to pay a monthly fee to allow officials to monitor his online activities. During an inspection of his home, officials found he was working on his niece’s computer to write his memoirs. The computer had Internet access. Bush said he never went online, but in 2014, he was sent back to prison for another year.

In 2016, Bernhard, now at New York Law School’s Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, and her students filed a public-records request for the investigative and autopsy records from Bush’s case. Initially rebuffed, they threatened litigation, and the county granted access. The first set of documents included the autopsy material, which was reviewed by Dr. Michael Baden, a former chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police. Although the metal pick had been lost, there was still a photograph of the object, and Baden was able to show that the pattern and the spacing of the tines on the pick didn’t line up with the puncture marks found on Sherese’s body. The puncture marks were in groups of three, like a fork, rather than in a longer line consistent with the pick, which had 10 tines. In addition, some of the wounds were too deep to have been made by a pick without other nearby wounds being equally deep.

Equally important, Baden’s report said that there was no bleeding around the wounds, which meant Sherese had been dead when she was stabbed. Like the weapon itself, the order of events was in conflict with Bush’s confession, in which he had said Sherese was stabbed, then strangled. During his testimony, Adelman had never been asked about whether the wounds were pre- or post-mortem.

The second set of documents, turned over between October 2017 and April 2018, included the police interviews with Jones, his statement placing him at the crime scene, and the polygraph examinations. Bernhard had also obtained affidavits from witnesses who said they had been discouraged from helping Bush as well as a new affidavit from Bell. In July 2018, she presented her findings to the office of Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini, who had taken office in January 2018. One of Sini’s first actions was to establish a Conviction Integrity Bureau, which was run by Howard Master. The DA’s office quickly opened its own investigation.

Their report, contained in a motion in support of vacating Bush’s conviction, said that prosecutors had committed a Brady violation by not disclosing the Jones files to Bush’s attorneys. The motion also suggested that Jones, who died in 2006, was “the most viable suspect in Watson’s murder.” None of the attendees at the party remembered Jones being there. At the time, he lived in a different town and was already several years out of high school. The route that Jones should have walked to get to his sister’s house would have taken him in the other direction. He had put himself at the crime scene, and his plastic pick was found near Sherese’s body. In addition, Arther’s polygraph results came under attack as unreliable; his methods were now seen as anachronistic and shown to have produced false positives in cases where defendants have been later cleared through DNA evidence.

The Conviction Integrity Bureau had its own medical examiner review Baden’s report. He agreed with the conclusions, which cast doubt on Bush’s confession. While the DA’s office said that it could not resolve the question of whether Bush was abused during his questioning, there was evidence to support his claim. Moreover, “Even if Bush were not subject to physical coercion, factors such as Bush's youth and psychologically coercive tactics employed by the detectives assigned to this investigation suggest that Bush could have offered a false confession as a result of severe psychological pressure, even without application of physical force.” The CIB noted that Bush was a scared teenager, and that juveniles are particularly prone to giving false confessions under police pressure. It also noted that Stahl, in his interview with the CIB, displayed racial animus when discussing the case, although he denied any abuse of Bush. “Yeah I know, Keith Bush, I remember,” Stahl said. “That fucking nigger did it.” Stahl suggested that the DNA under Sherese’s fingernails could have come from anyone at the party, which he said was “more like a riot,” and that homicide cases in Suffolk communities with significant black populations were often “misdemeanor homicides.” Rafferty would only answer questions from the CIB through his attorney.

Bell had given an extensive affidavit in 2016. She said she didn’t know why she had said that Bush had left the party with Sherese, “I was scared of the police, I believed I was doing the right thing by confirming what they already believed.” She said she had written to Bush in prison in 1992, apologizing for what she had done.

Unlike Tanenbaum, the CIB found Bell’s recantation to be credible. Critically, no one remembered Bell being at the party, and the idea that a scared and hungry runaway had stood outside on a cold January night for nearly four hours also seemed implausible.

At Bush’s trial, a Suffolk County detective had testified that the fibers found in Sherese’s fingernail scrapings did “contain fibers from the defendant’s jacket.” In re-examining that evidence, both Bush’s attorney and the CIB determined that the statement was unsubstantiated. At best, the fibers could have been shown to be similar, but that still didn’t explain other fibers in the scrapings that weren't similar to those from Bush’s denim jacket and would have excluded him as a suspect.

On May 22, 2019, an order vacating Bush’s conviction was approved by Judge Anthony Senft in the Supreme Court of Suffolk County. Speaking to the court, Sini said, “We believe Keith Bush did not commit this murder. We believe that John Jones is a more probable suspect.”

Bush, now 62, said, “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.”

In November 2019, Bush filed a claim with the New York Court of Claims seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction. In August 2020, Bush filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Suffolk County seeking damages for his wrongful conviction. Bush settled his state compensation claim in December 2020 for $5,250,000, and received $16 million in 2021 to settle his lawsuit against Suffolk County.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 6/3/2019
Last Updated: 5/2/2022
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempt, Violent
Reported Crime Date:1975
Sentence:20 to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*