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Three More Men Freed by DNA Test

Aired June 12, 2003 - 20:39   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Most of us probably weren't aware of DNA analysis before the O.J. Simpson trial back in the mid-1990s, but the process of DNA fingerprinting -- analyzing a person's unique genetic makeup -- has actually been around since the mid-'80s. In that decade, it was first used to convict and exonerate defendants in sexual assault cases. Since then, slowly -- very slowly -- DNA evidence has gained acceptance in the legal system. Michael Okwu has the latest instance of DNA changing a conclusion and a couple of peoples' lives.

MICHAEL OKWU, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): John Coga (ph), John Restivo and Dennis Halstead have spent the last 18 years in a Long Island jail -- until now. Three men, a single tragic story, and now a collective sigh of relief.

DENNIS HALSTEAD, FREED BY DNA: I mean, I've been put in hell for 18 years, you know? Now maybe this could be my heaven.

OKWU: Based on new DNA evidence, prosecutors agreed to vacate their 30-plus-year convictions for the 1984 rape and murder of Theresa Fusco (ph). The new evidence indicates semen found on the 16-year-old did not match any of the three men.

JOHN COGA: We decided that we had to kill her.

OKWU: Prosecutors had based their case on a videotaped confession of Mr. Coga, a confession, defense attorneys argued, that was coerced. In the confession, prosecutors said Coga admitted he strangled Fusco after she was raped by the two other men, her body left near this roller rink. In the trial, prosecutors also relied on testimony from fellow inmates.

BARRY SCHECK, ATTORNEY: We've had 130 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. Twenty-three percent of them involved false confessions or admissions. Nineteen percent of them involved jailhouse snitch testimony.

OKWU: But the men's ultimate fate has not yet been decided. Based on the new DNA evidence, prosecutors essentially decided the men had not had a fair trial. While their convictions have been put aside, the charges against them have not yet been dismissed.

DENIS DILLON, NASSAU COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: We may decide down the road that we would make a move to dismiss these charges, or we may decide that we have sufficient evidence to go forward and retry them again.

ADELE BERNHARD, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I hope that when they take a look at it, they will be as convinced as we are that this DNA evidence does prove their innocence.

OKWU: Prosecutors may take up to six months to decide. In the meantime, the three men are allowing the reality of freedom to set in.

JOHN RESTIVO, FREED BY DNA: I have no plans right now. All I want to do is relax right now.

OKWU: Michael Okwu, CNN, New York.


COOPER: One of the men you just saw there joins me now, John Restivo. He's one of three men freed yesterday by DNA tests. And we're talking literally just about 24 hours ago. He's with his attorney, Nina Morrison, who's also the executive director of the Innocence Project.

Both of you, appreciate you joining us. John, I mean, it was 24 hours ago, 8:00 o'clock last night, you were released. What is it -- I mean, your life has changed completely in the last 24 hours. What has your day been like?

RESTIVO: Well, visited relatives that was ill and did some shopping and trying to get myself reacquainted with society. It's like a culture shock, going from a prison cell, an 18-year trip to a prison cell, into a society as it is today.

COOPER: Do things look different, or do things...

RESTIVO: Oh, most certainly. It's, like I said, culture shock.

COOPER: Right.

RESTIVO: You know, a lot of things have changed.

COOPER: This is obviously a day you have dreamed about for a long time. Was it a difference experience than you anticipated it was going to be, getting out?

RESTIVO: Yes, a little different than I anticipated. Yes, I didn't think it would be -- I didn't think it would bring this much attention, and it's brought a lot of attention.

COOPER: Nina, let's talk just legally where things stand right now. The prosecutors basically have said that the trial was not fair, but they haven't declared John and the other two men in this case innocent. Where does this go from here?

NINA MORRISON, ATTORNEY: Right. The prosecutors in office filed a joint motion to throw out the convictions. Everyone agreed that the DNA evidence conclusively pointed to an unidentified male perpetrator who'd had sexual intercourse with the young victim, Theresa Fusco, the night that she was raped and killed. We believe that that person is the real assailant, is out there somewhere, and are very hopeful that he's going to be apprehended.

In the meantime, these men are home with their families, and we're working with the district attorney and we're hopeful that at some point they're going to formally dismiss the charges.

COOPER: Now, basically, I mean, there were some DNA tests a couple of years ago which one of them was sort of inconclusive. The other two indicated that John and the other two were not involved in this incident. But it was you who actually discovered -- but a judge said that they couldn't rely on that evidence. You actually discovered new evidence, like, literally through going through old case files.

MORRISON: Good old-fashioned detective work. We had -- John had talked me through some of it, and our law students and I had filed some Freedom of Information law requests, got some documents. And with the cooperation of the district attorney, my co-counsel and I, along with two assistant district attorneys, literally went through seven police department boxes of evidence this past January. And in there, we found a vaginal swab from the victim that had been sealed in a test tube back in 1987 by the original detectives.

COOPER: That everyone had forgotten about. Didn't even know about it.

MORRISON: And no one knew it existed. John and his lawyers had previously made multiple requests for this evidence. And everything from the medical examiner's office had been tested, but this was something new. So we agreed...

COOPER: And this -- that was...

MORRISON: ... on a lab...

COOPER: ... the key piece of evidence that the new tests were done on.

OKWU: There were two. We actually had another DNA test that everyone agreed was valid from about a year-and-a-half ago. So that was what started the new phase of the case in motion. But this one really sealed the deal. I mean, both DNA tests came back clearly to a single unidentified male who had raped and killed this girl, and clearly was not John or his co-defendants.

COOPER: John, I mean, your -- so much of your life has been taken away. Are you angry? Are you bitter? Are you -- what is the...

RESTIVO: Well, there's a sense of bitterness there, but I'd rather dwell on the joy of yesterday and today. You know, and now it's a sense of relief that I can finally put this behind me. You know, it ain't no sense really dwelling on bitterness now because it's not going to really get me anywhere.

COOPER: You've all along said you were innocent.


COOPER: What is it like when other people don't believe you?

RESTIVO: Well, it was very frustrating, right, even -- especially after that last round of tests, you know, because, personally, I felt it was like a -- it was significant, that the results were significant, but -- you know, just -- I just thank God that these new results got me to where I am right now, you know?

COOPER: And tonight will be your second night...


COOPER: ... in your own bed, I guess.

RESTIVO: Right. Yes.

COOPER: Nina, where does this go from here?

MORRISON: You know, we're very optimistic that with additional leads and the great detective work that Nassau County's capable of, they're going to find the real perpetrator. We're going to try to help John and his co-defendants get their lives back and, hopefully, also turn on to some reforms that will help prevent wrongful convicts from taking place again.

Among the things we're looking at are putting videotapes in interrogation rooms, so that there's a record of interrogation when people come in, so we don't have false confessions, like we did in this case. There's a number of other reforms. But we're just real grateful that John and Dennis and John are all here today.

COOPER: Well, Nina Morrison and John Restivo, I appreciate you joining us. Thank you very much.

MORRISON: Thank you.

RESTIVO: Nice to meet you.

COOPER: All right.


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