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John Restivo and Dennis Halstead, Wrongfully Convicted Men, Awarded $36 Million

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MINEOLA, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Two who spent 18 years in prison for the 1984 rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl on Long Island, only to be exonerated when a DNA test showed that another unknown assailant had committed the crimes, were awarded $18 million each Thursday in a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The verdict, announced in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, followed a four-week trial. The jury found that the lead detective in the 1984 Nassau County police investigation had both fabricated hair evidence and hid other evidence from prosecutors. Because of those actions, the jury found that John Restivo and Dennis Halstead were entitled to a combined $36 million in damages.

In essence, the men were awarded $1 million for every year they spent in prison for their wrongful convictions.

All charges were dismissed against the men in 2005 after DNA testing — unavailable in the 1980s — proved that the rape and murder of Theresa Fusco, of Lynbrook, had been committed by another man. That person has never been apprehended.

Fusco disappeared after leaving her part-time job at a Lynbrook roller-skating rink in November 1984. Her nude body was found weeks after the assault, buried under leaves in a wooded area near the rink.

The lead detective in the case, Joseph Volpe, has since died. A spokeswoman for the county executive did not immediately return a call seeking comment, and Nassau County Attorney Carnell Foskey said, “We do not comment on pending litigation.”

Nick Brustin, one of the attorneys representing Restivo and Halstead, said the jury verdict proved his clients were the victims of intentional misconduct by Nassau County detectives.

“When a promising initial lead reached a dead end, Volpe, desperate to solve this high profile crime, planted hairs from the victim’s head in John Restivo’s van, and deliberately hid evidence that proved their innocence,” Brustin said in a statement. “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.”

Brustin had asked the jury to award $25 million to each of the men.

Restivo wants the county to take a closer look at their case, as well as others in which police misconduct has been alleged.

We hope that this verdict will cause the County to examine why and how Detective Volpe was able to get away with this extraordinarily serious misconduct, and reevaluate its policies to insure this tragedy happens to no one else,” Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann, one of Restivo’s and Halstead’s lawyers said in a statement.

Newsday reported Thursday that John Kogut, who also was convicted in the teenager’s death and later exonerated, was not part of the civil rights trial.

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