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Federal jury awards $36M in wrongful conviction suit

A judges gavel rests on top of a desk in a courtroom. (File Photo)
A judges gavel rests on top of a desk in a courtroom. (File Photo)
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Jurors presiding over a wrongful conviction lawsuit awarded $36 million Thursday to two men who spent nearly two decades prison before being exonerated of the 1984 murder and rape of a Lynbrook teenager.

The men – John Restivo, 56 and Dennis Halstead, 59 – had spent close to 18 years in prison for the rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco in Lynbrook in 1984. Using DNA evidence, Nassau County prosecutors dismissed charges against both men in 2005, saying forensics proved another man committed the heinous act, attorneys for the men said.

After their release from prison, Restivo and Halstead filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleged Nassau County cops had fabricated and lied about evidence, buried leads and mishandled the investigation.

The case went to trial last month at the US District Court in Central Islip and after hearing arguments for almost four weeks, jurors returned with a verdict against Nassau County and now-deceased police detective Joseph Volpe, who lead the investigation.

Jurors found Volpe had committed intentional misconduct, including fabricating hair evidence and hiding exculpatory evidence from prosecutors, the defense lawyers said. They argued Volpe had planted hairs from the victim’s head in Restivo’s van and then deliberately hid evidence that would have proven Restivo and Halstead were innocent.

“The jury affirmed what the evidence unequivocally shows – that John and Dennis’s convictions were the result of stunning, intentional misconduct by Nassau County detectives,” said Nick Brustin, an attorney who represented Restivo and Halstead in federal court. “Today a jury finally acknowledged what the County never has—that its own officers’ intentional misconduct robbed these innocent men of eighteen years of their lives.”

Through a spokeswoman, Nassau County Attorney Carnell Foskey declined to comment on the verdict, citing pending litigation.