A jury in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York, yesterday awarded John Restivo, 56, and Dennis Halstead, 59, $18 million each—$1 million for every year they spent in prison—following their wrongful convictions in the 1984 rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco. All charges had been dismissed in 2003 after DNA testing of evidence, which was conducted over ten years, excluded the men and implicated another, unidentified perpetrator.
After a four-week trial in the federal civil rights lawsuit, the jury concluded that Nassau County lead detective, Joseph Volpe, now deceased, had engaged in official misconduct, including fabrication of hair evidence and withholding of exculpatory evidence in the case.
As reported in The Wall Street Journal, (here) Nick Brustin, one of the attorneys for Restivo and Halstead, said that Volpe, “…planted hairs from the victim’s head in John Restivo’s van and deliberately hid evidence that proved…[the men’s] innocence.”
Defense attorneys secured an affidavit from the prosecution’s expert who had concluded that the hairs allegedly found in the van were decomposed to an extent that they did not fit the crime theory and were autopsy hairs “commingled with others from the van—whether through negligence or misconduct.”
A third man, John Kogut, was also convicted in the case. His conviction was the first of the three vacated in 2003. However, he had confessed and was retried in 2005. Kogut’s confession followed more than 18 hours of interrogation by police officers who told him that he had failed three polygraph tests. According to the Innocence Project’s case history for Kogut (here), the final confession—handwritten by a police detective—was the sixth version by Kogut who had originally denied involvement in the crime. The confession included no facts unknown by the police. Kogut was found not guilty in the second trial in December 2005. He was not a party in the lawsuit that resulted in the award yesterday.
Centurian Ministries accepted the case for all three men in 1994, and the Innocence Project began work on Restivo’s case in 1997. According to the Innocence Project’s report, Kogut was represented by Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and Centurion Ministries and Halstead was represented by Pace Law School’s Postconviction Clinic.
The ABA Journal reported (here) that the federal jury—which had already concluded last week that Detective Volpe had violated Restivo and Halstead’s civil rights—deliberated less than two hours on the award.
Attorney Nick Brustin commented on the award and the ordeal, as reported in Newsday (here):
‘”It’s a huge number but it’s not nearly enough to compensate them for their suffering’ …No one could have ‘invented a better torture’…than having innocent men confined to maximum security prisons in which they lived most of the time in 6-by-8 foot metal cells, rife with insects and rodents, unending noises and noxious odors, and in constant fear of assaults from other prisoners because of the nature of their supposed crimes.”
It is important to note that many wrongfully convicted persons receive no compensation upon release from prison and exoneration. Headline-making awards such as this send an important message to officials and taxpayers. Official misconduct resulting in wrongful conviction and imprisonment rightfully offends the public conscience and can be a serious financial liability. But, unfortunately, no award can fully compensate for incalculable human suffering and additional victimization enabled when innocent people are wrongfully punished and actual perpetrators escape justice.