RIVERHEAD, N.Y. (FOX 5 NY) - A Long Island man who served decades in prison for a murder he did not commit was exonerated on Wednesday.
A room full of people fell completely silent after Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini apologized to Keith Bush, 62, who walked into the courthouse a convicted felon but left a free man.
"On behalf of the Suffolk County District Attorney's office and law enforcement community, I'm sorry," Sini said.
Bush served 32 years in prison for the murder and attempted sexual abuse of Sherese Watson. He was paroled in 2007 and later served another year on a parole violation. He has always maintained his innocence.
"Forty-four years is more than a lifetime of suffering, and I know that it cannot be brought back," Bush said. "But there are opportunities to learn and to grow."
On Jan. 10, 1975, Bush, then 17, and Watson were both at a house party in Bellport. Watson never returned home following the party and her remains were discovered two days later in an empty lot near the house. She was determined to have been a victim of attempted rape, physical assault, and murder by strangulation.
A few days later, Suffolk County Police homicide detectives arrested Bush and charged him with Watson's murder. Bush maintained his innocence and claimed that detectives beat him and coerced him into signing a confession.
A jury convicted him of murder. A judge sentenced him to 20 years to life in prison.
After Bush's release on parole in 2007, he had to register as a Level-3 sex offender. He went back behind bars for a year for a parole violation: using a computer with internet access, which he used to write his biography.
In 2018, Bush petitioned the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office's Conviction Integrity Bureau for review of his conviction.
A review of the case file uncovered never-before-disclosed evidence of an alternative suspect in Watson's murder. The existence of an alternative suspect, a man named John Jones, was never disclosed before Bush's trial.
"The Suffolk County District Attorney's office and the police department disclosed to Keith Bush the Jones material, and it includes a signed statement by John Jones," Sini said.
Police covered up the fact that they had even questioned Jones, Sini said. He said the statement Jones gave to police doesn't check out.
Among the evidence presented at Bush's trial was the testimony of a 15-year-old girl who said she had also attended the house party and had seen Watson leave with Bush. The girl recanted her testimony at a hearing in November 1980, admitting she had never been at the party and had lied at his trial.
At that time, Suffolk County officials dismissed the recantation. The witness has maintained since 1980 that her testimony was fictitious.
Bush's confession has been proven forensically impossible by a medical review of how the murder occurred. Sini said that the weapon allegedly used in the victim's assault didn't match her puncture wounds.
The confession was elicited by a former police detective who, when interviewed about the case in 2019, alluded to using coercive tactics. Forensic evidence has also debunked the former prosecutor's theory of how the crime was committed.
Sini said he believes that Bush was ultimately coerced into making a false confession.
The District Attorney's Office reached out to Dennis Rafferty, the lead detective in this case, who asked a lawyer to speak on his behalf.
"There was something that drove me, that enabled me to continue to fight and to continue to believe that if you persist long enough, ultimately you can succeed," Bush said.
Bush's defense attorney, Adele Bernhard, said she will not be seeking any monetary damages just yet.