Legislators compensate Covington man for decade spent in jail

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) -- A Covington area man has been handed a formal apology and compensation from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Gary Bush was convicted of and served time for bank robberies he never committed while living near Richmond in the mid-2000s.

Bush received a rare response from the legislature as he tries to move on with his life, but said it will never make up for what happened to him.

In late January, Senator Creigh Deeds approached the Senate Finance Committee.

"Mr. Chairman, I've got Senate Bill 1473," he said to Senator Tommy Norment.

During the legislative session, Virginia lawmakers are focused on making laws for the people. But in early January, lawmakers took some time for one person in particular. Deeds' bill is approved by the Senate Finance committee with no objection.

"Mr. Bush," says Senator Norment, "we extend our greatest apologies to you."

He was addressing Gary Bush. Now in his 60s, Bush lives in a Covington home alongside a creek with his mother. His dad passed away last year.

"Dad was great. Dad was really close, me and him were really close," Bush says, looking at a picture of his family.

He visits with his children and grandchildren when he feels well enough. He's spent some time in the hospital lately.

"This one right here, that's super Cooper," he said, pointing to a young, smiling grandson in a family photo.

It's those moments he cherishes most now. Time is more valuable than he ever knew. Anger hasn't completely left him.

"Oh yes, oh yes, really," Bush confirms. "And sometimes, I'm despondent. Sometimes, I don’t want to be around anybody at all. I’ll go up to my farm up here, build a fire by myself, watch the fire and stuff like that. Don’t want to talk to anybody - just be alone.”

In 2006, Bush was arrested for possession of cocaine, something he never denied. He was living near Richmond at the time, having moved from Covington for work. But not long after, he was arrested again. In October of 2006, the Bank of Southside Virginia in Petersburg was robbed. In November, a BB&T in Prince George County was robbed by a man matching the description of the first robbery suspect.

According to Bush, four eyewitnesses incorrectly identified him as the suspect after police had shown his photo to the witnesses. Bush said he had done businesses at one of those banks, prior to the robbery, and believe that's why at least one of the witnesses recognized him.

According to documents, Bush denied involvement and provided alibis. Handwriting samples and palm prints taken from Bush did not match those found at the scene. But in 2007, Bush was convicted of both robberies and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

“Well, I was kind of a loner," Bush said of his time in jail. "I didn’t really want to talk to people, I stayed pretty much to myself. A lot of personal things go through your head that you really wouldn’t want to know about. It’s hard to explain these things and took away a lot of things from my religion. I gave up on my religion, I told God if he got me through this I will come back to the church. But the whole time I was in church, I stayed away from God. Period.”

Bush said he always maintained his innocence and his family supported him. He quit drugs and alcohol. He was rounding out the 11th year of a 12 year sentence before a phone call changed everything.

In May of 2017, a man named Christian Amos called dispatchers with Prince George County's 9-1-1 center.

Amos told the dispatcher he wanted to turn himself in.

She responds, "Are you sure you have paperwork through here because I don’t see anything for you, sir?'

Amos responds, "I’m sure there isn’t. I haven’t been caught, that’s why I’m turning myself in.”

Amos was subsequently arrested and Bush was released on geriatric parole. Amos pleaded guilty to both robberies, provided details of both and, documents say, his handwriting sample was similar to the one left at the scene.

WDBJ7 spoke with Amos over the phone. He is currently incarcerated at Haynesville Correctional Center in a veterans housing unit, now three years into his sentence. Amos said prior to the robberies, he was abusing drugs. An opioid addiction led to a heroin addiction, which led to the robberies. He said he chose to rob insured banks, thinking no would be hurt.

"How wrong I was," he says.

Some time after the robberies, Amos said there were several moments where he made changes in his life.

“I had a couple guys that I grew up with," he said. 'I had purchased them some heroin and I gave it to them and I went home and did what I had. I called them the next morning and nobody answered and I went over there and they were both dead. And it was that day that I stopped using."

Amos said he moved in with family. He said he became an involved grandfather, helping care for his grandchildren. But it was one grandson in particular who changed everything for Amos. It came after Amos confronted his grandson for breaking a neighbor's window and encouraging him to apologize; an event that rattled Amos' conscious.

“I walked him over there and the last few steps I let him walk up to him, you know, by himself and I stood back and he, he apologized," Amos said through tears. "And you know, I was just so proud of him. But it left me feeling like a hypocrite.”

Amos made the 911 call. It wasn't until about 30 days into incarceration that Amos learned of Gary Bush from his lawyer.

“I was like, 'what?' And he said, yeah, somebody has been in prison for what I had done. And when he told me that I just broke down, I wept," he said. "I don’t like what I see when I look in the mirror. I started that ball rolling and if it hadn’t been for me he wouldn’t have never had to serve 10 years of his life.”

Bush is working on moving forward with his life, even though he still deals with people who doubt or question his innocence.

"(You) Just have to put it behind you and hope that people understand and if they don't then it's not my problem," he said.

Bush has returned to the church, making good on the deal he made with God. And he said there's no ill will toward Amos, a man who he knows was also in the throes of addiction.

"I can understand that," Bush said. "It's a wicked road to go down."

But the road Bush was on after jail didn't lead to exoneration right away.

"Mr. Bush had given up," said Jennifer Givens. "He had gone through his trials and his appeal and had given up hope of ever getting out."

Givens leads the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia Law school, which works to help convicted Virginians with a case for innocence. She said in the last three years, the clinic has helped six people walk out of jail. Her clinic team is comprised mostly of students. They have received hundreds of requests for help each year, most of them accused of rape, robbery and murder.

She learned of Bush's situation after Amos came forward. Givens said the entire case serves as a learning opportunity on the potential fallibility of eyewitnesses, something she said she sees in about 90 percent of the cases her clinic works.

“Something that we all need to remain mindful of is that there were four eyewitnesses in this case who positively identified Mr. Bush as the man they saw robbing the banks," she said.

Her team of students got to work after learning about Bush's case, eventually getting Virginia's Supreme Court to write a Writ of Actual Innocence for Bush in May of 2018. It granted an expungement for both robberies. She said it's an extremely rare move for an extremely rare case, as there is a high bar set to achieve a writ.

"It's quite extraordinary," she said, "and it's also very troubling, because if the real perpetrator had not come forward, then Mr. Bush would had to have serve out the rest of his sentence."

The Innocence Project then called on Deeds for the final task. He was taken by Bush's story and immediately agreed to help.

"That's why this claims bill is the least we could do to try to offer some compensation for the time that was taken out of the best years of his life," he said.

This legislative session Deeds he pushed through a bill producing $520,000 in a compensation claim for Bush, money that comes from the legislature's general fund.

"It's a superior way to prove that you don't have that sort of record," Deeds said. "You're a man of better character than that.

These days, Bush looks forward to holidays and time he can spend with family. But money can't buy back time already spent.

To hear the 911 call from Christian Amos and to hear our full phone interview with him, click on the links attached to this article.

To read the full claims bill and to read the Writ of Actual Innocence for Bush, click on the documents attached to this article.

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