Man Wrongfully Convicted Of Murder Exonerated After He Served 33 Years In Prison
Keith Bush says that “there was something that drove me, enabled me to continue to fight.”
A New York man who was wrongfully convicted of murder as a teenager and spent over half his life in prison was exonerated after a lawyer he reached out to took up the cause to clear his name.
“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,” Keith Bush, now 65, said of his decades-long battle.
In January 1975, 14-year-old Sherese Watson was discovered strangled and sexually abused in a field after she left a late-night party at her friend’s home in Bellport, New York.
Keith Bush, who was 17 at the time and one of about 100 people who attended the party, was taken into custody four days later, and he signed what he consistently insisted over the years was a coerced confession.
Over time, cracks in the case against him became more and more apparent.
A prosecution witness testified at Bush’s 1976 trial that she saw the victim and the defendant leave the party together. She later recanted her story, saying she was young, vulnerable, and never was even at the home the night in question.
“I was scared of the police,” the witness said in a 2016 affidavit, according to the National Register of Exonerations. “I believed I was doing the right thing by confirming what they already believed.”
Several other witnesses who could have provided Bush an alibi also later stated in affidavits police threatened to arrest them if they testified on his behalf.
Bush’s purported confession to police, including his claim he stabbed Watson with a hair pick, were “inconsistent” with evidence, noted Adele Bernhard, the lawyer who began working on the case after Bush contacted her in 2006, The New York Times reported.
“The facts that they put in it, the words that they use, none of it rang true,” Bernhard explained.
Bernhard was eventually able to get DNA testing done on scrapings from under the victim’s fingernails, which definitively excluded Bush as a contributor to the genetic material, according to the National Register of Exonerations.
Despite these findings and other revelations, Bush remained in prison in Upstate New York until he was paroled in March 2007.
He then, with Bernhard’s help, continued his push to clear his name.
Bush finally got a break in 2018 when Bernhard obtained records from his case through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The documents revealed police had questioned a possible second suspect in the case who attended the party — then-21-year-old John W. Jones Jr.
In an April 1975 statement to authorities, Jones, who has since passed away, claimed he was drunk and stumbled over Watson’s body the night of the party. He noted a hair comb he dropped at the crime scene appeared to be similar to one detectives found near the victim’s body.
Still, police decided to drop their investigation into Jones after he took a polygraph test. His denials about his involvement in Watson’s murder, the polygrapher’s report stated, exhibited “slight indications of truthfulness,” according to the National Register of Exonerations.
During Bush’s trial, his defense lawyer was never informed about Jones as a possible suspect — a discovery that Bernhard presented in 2018 to then-Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy D. Sini.
“Mistakes happen in all aspects of our lives, but there was intentional misconduct here,” noted Sini, who then launched a nine-month investigation into Bush’s case through Suffolk County’s newly formed Conviction Integrity Bureau.
“At the end of the day, we came to some very simple conclusions,” Sini said. “We don’t believe Mr. Bush committed this murder. We believe Mr. Bush was denied a fair trial. And we believe that John Jones is a more probable suspect in this crime.”
On May 22, 2019, Judge Anthony Senft Jr. agreed and vacated Bush’s conviction in a hearing at Suffolk County District Court in Riverhead, New York.
“I cannot give you that which was taken from you in the 1970s, but what I can restore to you today is your presumption of innocence,” Senft said.
Bush told the court he was “humbled” by the decision, explaining that previously “no one would listen, no one would at least hear me out.”
“Forty-four years is more than a lifetime of suffering, and I know that it cannot be brought back, but there are opportunities to learn, to grow, and believe me, I have learned and grown as a result of that,” he said, ABC 7 reported.
In September 2021, Bush settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit with Suffolk County for $16 million.