Keith Bush was arrested at 17 for a crime he always insisted he had not committed. On Wednesday, a judge threw out the murder conviction. He’s 62.
For four decades, Keith Bush insisted he had been convicted as a teenager of a murder he did not commit: strangling a 14-year-old girl in Bellport, N.Y. The police, he said, had beaten him and forced him to sign a confession that he had never read.
While imprisoned, he had enlisted the help of a lawyer at Pace Law School, who sued to obtain records and unearthed evidence showing Mr. Bush had not gotten a fair trial. Even after he was released from state prison on parole, Mr. Bush continued to fight to clear his name.
On Wednesday morning, 44 years after his arrest, Mr. Bush was exonerated in Suffolk County District Court in Riverhead, Long Island. The Suffolk County district attorney, Timothy D. Sini, asked a judge to throw out the conviction, saying prosecutors never told the defense the police had interviewed another possible culprit.
“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,” Judge Anthony Senft Jr. told Mr. Bush.
Mr. Bush, now 62, wore just a hint of a smile. “I am truly humbled by this decision,” he said. He told the judge he had lived a long time in pain. “No one would listen,” he said. “No one would at least hear me out.”
Mr. Bush was only 17 years old in 1975 when he was charged with the murder of Sherese Watson, a teenager who never returned home from a house party in Bellport, N.Y. She was found in a vacant lot, strangled and sexually abused. Mr. Bush was arrested four days later and signed a confession to the crime.
At trial, the jury believed the confession, though he insisted from the outset it had been coerced. Another partygoer who had testified she saw Mr. Bush leave with the victim that night recanted her testimony at a hearing five years later, saying she had never even been to the party. But it did not lead to a new trial.
In 2006, Mr. Bush wrote to Adele Bernhard, then a lawyer running a clinic at Pace Law School, from the Green Haven Correctional Facility in upstate New York. He was innocent, he said, and he hoped she would help him prove it. He had written similar letters to other lawyers.
Ms. Bernhard was interested in his case immediately, she said, after reading the statement he had signed.
“It was internally inconsistent,” she said. “The facts that they put in it, the words that they use, none of it rang true.” His statement did not match forensic evidence about how the girl had died, she said.
Ms. Bernhard discovered that the DNA underneath the victim’s fingernails did not match a sample Mr. Bush had given in prison. She also re-interviewed the witness who had recanted her testimony about seeing Mr. Bush with Ms. Watson at the party.
But a judge denied her 2008 motion to vacate the conviction, and turned down her request for additional testing on clothes and other crime-scene evidence.
Ms. Bernhard persevered. Over the next decade, she went back to key witnesses, analyzed fiber evidence, pored over the confession and did more research on the detectives involved. She also filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain records of the case.
Those records contained evidence that the police had another possible suspect for Ms. Watson’s murder — another young man at the party named John W. Jones Jr.
In a statement, Mr. Jones, who has since died, told the police he had stumbled over Ms. Watson’s body in the empty lot after leaving the party drunk, Mr. Sini said. He also said a comb found next to her body looked like one he had dropped.
Mr. Bush’s defense lawyer at the 1976 trial had never been told about Mr. Jones’s statements, a clear violation of evidence rules. In 2018, Ms. Bernhard took the records to Mr. Sini, who had just been elected on a reform platform and had established a Conviction Integrity Bureau to review such cases.
Mr. Sini, who personally appeared in court to ask the judge to vacate Mr. Bush’s conviction, said the existence of an alternative suspect should have been disclosed before trial. He said the prosecutors had engaged in a deliberate cover up.
“Mistakes happen in all aspects of our lives,” he said at a news conference. “But there was intentional misconduct here.”
Mr. Sini said his office’s nine-month review of the case confirmed several other problems with the case. The key witness who recanted her testimony was never seen at the party. And Mr. Bush’s description in his confession — that he had stabbed Ms. Watson with a Afro-pick comb before she died — did not fit the forensic evidence, because very little blood was found on her white sweater.
One of the former detectives who obtained the confession had alluded to using coercive tactics, and another had been repeatedly cited for misconduct in other cases, Mr. Sini said in a news release.
“At the end of the day, we came to some very simple conclusions,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. Bush was released from prison on parole in 2007, about a month before his 50th birthday, and had to register as a sex offender, he said. He served another year in 2013 on a parole violation, for using a computer with internet access. He got a job in Connecticut as a forklift operator and is now engaged to be married.
When asked how he contains his anger, Mr. Bush said he does not.
“You don’t hold it back, you create outlets to release it,” he said. “And one of the greatest outlets is love.”
He added, “When you have the love of people that care about you, it enables you to release the pain.”
When asked whether he had ever considered giving up trying to clear his name, he answered with a straight face.
“I don’t know what that means,” he said.