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Jeffrey Deskovic was wrongfully imprisoned for 16 years. Now what?



An Innocent Man

 

 

He sobbed. He confessed. He served time. But he never committed the crime. Jeffrey Deskovic cleared his name after 16 years of wrongful imprisonment. Now a Mercy College student, he is finding that life on the outside comes with its own set of struggles.

 

 

 

“I recognize you from the paper,” an older woman declares, stopping Jeffrey Deskovic on his way out of a Dobbs Ferry diner. “It was awful what happened to you.” Deskovic, dressed in a plain, button-down shirt and khakis and sporting a scraggly beard, doesn’t mind being approached by a stranger. He wants people to recognize him and know his story, that of a young man who spent the past 16 years of his life in prison for a heinous crime he didn’t commit.

“I don’t want people to ever forget me,” says 33-year-old Deskovic, now a psychology major at Mercy College. “If you remember what happened to one person, you can be on guard for the future.”

Freed by the work of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that took up his case and used DNA evidence—evidence that was always available—to prove his innocence, Deskovic admits he finds it difficult to pick up the pieces of a life that abruptly ended when he was only 17 years old. “It’s a new world,” he says over eggs Florentine at the diner. And he had to start living in it alone. He was released from prison without a job, or money, or even a driver’s license—and virtually no support from friends or family. “I’m pretty much on my own,” he says. (He declines to answer questions about his relationship with his relatives.) On his own, he has had to figure out the things most of us do without thinking—like using a cellphone, or getting around town. Even taking a walk outside felt new to him. “It’s nice to be outside and not have to worry about being told to go back in,” he says.

“It’s an adjustment just dealing with all the choices,” he continues. “I’m free to come and go when I want, travel when I choose, eat what I want to eat. I had to realize that if I didn’t set something up for myself, it wouldn’t happen.”

Nina Morrison, a lawyer for The Innocence Project who represented Deskovic, certainly empathizes. “It would be hard for anyone who spent the last five, ten, fifteen years in prison. It’s like they’ve been in a war. But it’s even harder for Jeffrey because he went to prison when he was so young. He’s never lived in his own apartment, balanced a budget, or lived as an adult out in the world. He doesn’t want to be treated like a teenager, but he still feels like a teenager inside.”

A teenager who never got to go to his prom, attend his high school graduation, go off to college with people his own age. It’s been difficult, seemingly impossible, for him to catch up. “Everyone in college has already made their friends,” he says. “And all the students are much younger than I am.”

It doesn’t help any that Deskovic, unlike some college students, has to hustle twice as hard to keep afloat financially. No longer receiving welfare, Deskvoic lives on what he makes on speaking engagements and writing articles. He’s seeking compensation for what happened to him in a civil lawsuit, but has no idea when—if ever—those funds will come through. “I just don’t have excess money,” he says. “The little bit that I have I use for putting gas in the car. I’d like to do things like go to the movies, but I don’t unless someone volunteers to take me.”

Luckily, he has come across some generous people. A Yonkers resident, moved by a newspaper article, donated his car to Deskovic. The Hudson Valley Islamic Community Center set him up with his own apartment in Mohegan Lake. When the Center could no longer maintain it, Mercy College stepped in with a temporary room and board to carry him through the spring semester. Still, Deskovic never thought that freedom was going to be so hard. "Nobody has made me their central focus to help me readjust.”

He is not alone, however, in being a Westchester resident who has spent years in jail despite his innocence. He is the third county resident who has been exonerated by The Innocence Project since 1990. (Charles Dabbs was convicted of rape in 1984 and cleared after seven years in prison; Terry Chalmers went to jail for rape, sodomy, robbery, and grand larceny in 1987, and his conviction was vacated seven and a half years later.) Nationwide, DNA evidence has exonerated 198 inmates. At any given moment, The Innocence Project has 7,000 letters from inmates pending in its intake system. And though the Project found some allies in local government and worked tirelessly, as did Deskovic, to prove his innocence, what ultimately freed him was a great deal of luck.

 

 

On November 15, 1989, Angela Correa, a 15-year-old Peekskill High School student, went out to take photos for a class project. Two days later, her body was found near the elementary school. She had been beaten, raped, and strangled.

Deskovic and Correa were not friends. “I was quiet and kept to myself,” he says. So when he appeared to be overly distraught about her death, stopping by her wake three times, the police took notice. And when they learned that he was late to school on the morning after the murder, they grew suspicious. “The police claimed that other people in the school told them I might be someone that they’d want to talk to,” he says.

The police took the teenager to headquarters for questioning (without notifying his family). Though they eventually released him, they told him to return at any time with information that might help the case. Deskovic took this as an invitation to start his own “investigation” of the crime, going to the police seven or eight times with his theories. On January 27, 1990, the police asked him to take a polygraph test—again without parental consent. After some convincing, he agreed.

Deskovic could not have guessed the ordeal that was to follow. He was driven up to Putnam County and interrogated for seven and a half hours. “They didn’t let me eat or anything,” he says. Policemen, he says, lead him to believe he failed his polygraph test. At one point, Deskovic says, he climbed under the polygraph machine and curled up in the fetal position, sobbing. “Eventually one officer said that they would stop what they were doing if I told them what they wanted to hear, and that I wouldn’t be arrested,” he says. “They offered me an out, and I took it.”

And was arrested.

Due to ongoing litigation, then-lieutenant Eugene Tumolo, now the chief of police in Peekskill, declined to discuss the interrogation. Still, he maintains: “There was no malice, no deception, and no wrongdoing on the part of the Peekskill police.”

Before his trial was to begin, the results of a DNA test and a hair-comparison test showed Deskovic what he already knew: he was not a match for either the DNA from a semen sample or the hair collected from the victim’s body. “Anyone objective would have stopped the case once the DNA didn’t match,” says Deskovic. The prosecution, headed by then-district attorney George Bolen (who has since retired and could not be reached for comment), argued that the semen and hair came from a consensual encounter before her murder took place. Such an encounter was never proven.

“This was basically a case of extreme ‘tunnel vision,’” Morrison says. “The police made up their minds that he was guilty. They essentially tricked him, making him believe that he was helping them with their case while really leading him further and further down the road to confession. And even after they got it, once they found out the DNA didn’t match, they still didn’t realize they had the wrong man and instead came up with a new theory that insisted he was still guilty.”

Ultimately, a jury was swayed more by the confession than the DNA evidence. Deskovic was found guilty of second-degree murder, first-degree rape, and possession of a weapon. “I was shocked,” he recalls. “It just didn’t seem real. It was like I was observing it from the outside. I felt I was in Fantasyland.”

 

Prison life was so hard, Deskovic says, that six months into his sentence he was close to suicide. It was something he’d attempted twice before, once by trying to hang himself in the county jail when he was first arrested, and again by swallowing a bottle of Tylenol after he was bailed out. “I was extremely depressed,” he says. “My life was ruined. I thought, ‘What’s the point?’”

Jail was so vicious that, he reports, “There were three to four acts of violence a day. There were constant assaults.”

He eventually found a ray of hope. “I saw someone who had a look of peace about him, even though he had done eleven years. I wanted that for me.” The man, a Muslim, gave Deskovic, a Catholic, study materials for Islam, and Deskovic embraced the religion. He found comfort in Islam’s five daily prayers. “Without a doubt, I wouldn’t be here otherwise,” he says. “I would have taken my own life, or I would have lost my mind.”

Yet his conversion didn’t solve all of his problems. It even caused some. Since Deskovic is white and most prison Muslims were African-American, some considered him a “race traitor.” Even the Muslim hierarchy wouldn’t let him advance beyond a certain point, despite his scholarship and service, because of his race.

Still, with his newfound support, he persevered through the tough prison terrain. He earned his GED, an associate’s degree, and was working towards a bachelor’s degree in psychology when Governor Pataki stopped financing education for prisoners. Even then, he obtained training in plumbing, computer repair, painting, and food service.

Mostly, though, he worked on earning his freedom. Parole he soon learned, was out of the question. “Before you go to the parole board, you have to have on your record that you completed the sex-offender program,” he says. “They require that you explicitly admit guilt and give details about what happened. It would have sickened me to do that.” He later learned that completing the program wouldn't have mattered anyway. After serving his sentence minimum of 15 years, he did get to go before the parole board. “They told me that even though I have a really good disciplinary record, a great educational record, and letters of support, the crime I was convicted of was brutal and therefore they were declining to release me.”

Crushed, Deskovic placed his hopes on the appeals process, but quickly encountered a tenacious opponent: Jeanine Pirro. “She doggedly opposed me, fighting against me every step of the way,” he says. At first Pirro argued that the Court of Appeals should refuse to hear Deskovic’s case—and won. When Deskovic filed a habeas corpus petition a bit past the due date—something a court clerk told his lawyer would be acceptable, since the postmark was still on-time—Pirro’s office time-barred his case. “At that point, I was stuck arguing that the procedural ruling was wrong, with my innocence only being ancillary,” he says. When the circuit court finally agreed to hear Deskovic’s appeal, Pirro fought—successfully—against having the DNA from the crime scene tested again with more sophisticated technology. With no new evidence, the conviction was upheld. Deskovic asked permission to appeal to the US Supreme Court, and again was successfully opposed by Pirro, exhausting the last of his appeals. “Had Pirro not opposed me and allowed the DNA to be retested,” he says, “I could have saved six years of my life.”

 

When Deskovic’s appeals ran out in 2000, so did his series of court-appointed lawyers. He began scrambling for more representation. “I sent letters to different lawyers, state groups, reporters,” he says. “If I could think of an angle, I did it. I needed to find some additional evidence of my innocence, or at least find something that would raise another legal issue.”

He found help serendipitously. After reading a copy of the anthology Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul, he sent a desperate letter to the book’s publisher meant for Tekla Dennison Miller, author of The Warden Wore Pink, a book about Miller’s experience as a female warden in a maximum-security prison that was excerpted in the anthology.

The letter never reached Miller. Instead, it reached Frontiers of Justice publisher Julie Zimmerman. She passed it along to Claudia Whitman, an activist who works for the GrassRoots Investigation Project of Equal Justice USA, an organization often involved with helping prisoners like Deskovic. “We corresponded for about a year, brainstorming ideas,” Deskovic says.

“He was really discouraged,” says Whitman. “He was giving up. I kept telling him, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Sometimes, you have to just keep hassling them.’”

Whitman suggested that he try re-connecting with The Innocence Project. Deskovic had written to them years before, but nothing ever came of it. Whitman eventually convinced him that, with all the advances in DNA technology, they might accept his case if he tried again. And they did.     

“Imagine if the author had never written the book, or if the publisher hadn’t forwarded on my letter,” says Deskovic. “The way in which I was cleared was too fluke-ish. No one should rely on happenstance.”

Taking on Deskovic’s case wasn’t an easy decision for the Innocence Project. “In most of our cases, at the time of conviction, DNA testing was either unavailable or not done,” Morrison, the Innocence Project lawyer, explains. “Jeff had DNA that ruled him out, and they went ahead and prosecuted him anyway. Since the DNA was used as evidence during the conviction, we weren’t sure what we could do for him.”

Eventually, someone at The Innocence Project suggested cross-referencing the DNA sample taken at the time of the murder with the samples in the national DNA databank, which keeps DNA samples of convicted felons. “We thought that maybe we could find the real killer and see if he would confess,” Morrison says. “It was a real long shot.” They took the case, which, this time around, got the cooperation of the new District Attorney, Janet DiFiore.

“We really couldn’t have asked the district attorney’s office to be more cooperative,” Morrison says. In fact, DiFiore's office volunteered to test the DNA on its own. “We didn’t even have to file our motion,” she recalls.

In most cases, DNA testing takes approximately six to 12 months to complete. Deskovic’s results came back in six weeks. They found a match: Steven Cunningham, an inmate at the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, New York. He had been convicted for the murder of Patricia Morrison, his girlfriend’s sister and a mother of three. When questioned about Angela Correa, he confessed. Patricia Morrison’s murder took place in 1993—four years after Correa’s murder—adding more names to the list of victims of the Deskovic case. Once the match was found, DiFiore decided that, as far as she was concerned, Deskovic shouldn’t spend another minute in jail. “I went out to Sing Sing to tell Jeffrey he was going home the next day,” Morrison says.

The news was met by Deskovic with the same shock and disbelief—perhaps more so—as the news of his guilty verdict. “I kept saying, ‘No, I’m not going home.’”

“He just couldn’t believe it,” says Morrison. “I talked to him for around two hours before I finally convinced him that he was going home.”

The next day, he was transported to the county courthouse, and a group of law students and well-wishers broke into a standing ovation when his sentence was vacated. Then, he stepped out of the courthouse a free man. He gave a two-and-a-half-hour press conference, just beginning to let others know what he has gone through for the past 16 years.

 

 

By any standard, Deskovic is doing exceptionally well. He’s currently finishing up his bachelor’s degree at Mercy, hoping to graduate by the spring of 2008 if not sooner. He then hopes to go to law school, specifically the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the only law school affiliated with The Innocence Project. Eventually, he hopes to work there. “That’d be a dream job,” he says wistfully.

He also spends time advocating for reforms to the criminal-justice system, including the mandatory video recording of interrogations, improved public defenders, the elimination of the death penalty, more education options for prisoners, and improved provisions for the wrongfully imprisoned after they’ve been released. “I like going to colleges, universities, basically anyplace that is willing to have me,” he says. “Public education is the first step towards legislative changes. There need to be provisions for defendants who have been cleared, independent of any compensation they seek in court. I should be provided with housing. I should be given a couple thousand dollars every month just to meet my cost of living expenses while I try to readjust to what happened to me. I think I should also be provided with mental health counseling.”

Deskovic is quick to overlook the progress he’s made in favor of how far he still has to go. He gets frustrated with how hard it’s been to put his life back together. Still, he finds support where he can. On his way to classes on Mercy’s Manhattan campus, for example, he tries to visit The Innocence Project as often as possible. “In many ways that’s like home to me and I consider them to be family," he says. "At the same time, I’m like a walking, concrete piece of evidence of their work. I made it through. It worked. I kept going and I didn’t quit.”

 

 

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