Sixteen, naïve and wrongfully convicted

Lecture 2
Jeffrey Deskovic (Kevin Lemieux/AQ)

In 1989, in Peekskill, New York, 16-year-old Jeffrey Deskovic was walking to school when he was stopped by a police car. He was wanted for questioning in the case of his raped and murdered classmate, 15-year-old Angela Correa. While his other classmates were in school mourning the girl’s loss, Deskovic sat in a small room for seven and a half hours. He had no food, no access to relatives and no attorney present. The police attached him to a polygraph machine with one goal in mind—to get Deskovic to confess to the murder by the end of the interrogation, regardless of his innocence. After feeding him copious amounts of caffeine to raise his pulse, playing good cop bad cop and using every scare tactic in the book, Deskovic was in a fetal position on the floor. If he confessed, they told him, he’d be set free and get to go home to his mother and grandmother.

“Being young, naïve, frightened, 16-years-old, not thinking about the long term implications, I took up their offer,” Deskovic told an overflowing auditorium at St. Thomas University last Tuesday night.

It wasn’t until 2006, after serving 16 years in prison, Deskovic was finally set free.

Since his release, he has been an integral part of successfully resisting the restoration of capital punishment in New York, delivered over 100 speeches across the United States and obtained his master’s degree in criminology.

Most recently, he founded the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which seeks legislative changes to prevent wrongful convictions, works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and helps exonerees in their reintegration into society.

“What is it that can be learned about the causes of wrongful conviction and the reforms?” Deskovic asked the audience full of criminology students. “What is it that my case illustrates?”

***

In high school, Deskovic was a shy and quiet student who didn’t participate in many organized sports.

“This made me seem strange to some of the kids in the school,” he said. “Some of those students told the police that they might want to talk to me because I seemed strange to them.”

Deskovic’s family tried to help him out as best they could, but with limited funds he was given a bad public defender who rarely met with him and refused to let him testify.

“He [his lawyer] said that it wasn’t his job to prove that I was innocent, it was the prosecutor’s job to prove that I was guilty.”

In New York State, if you’re 16 years old, then you’re tried as an adult. Deskovic was sentenced 15 years to life.

“I’ll never forget the day that I was found guilty. I felt like I was in some sort of nightmarish turn of reality,” Deskovic said. “To my way of thinking, at least up until that point in time, only guilty people were convicted.”

In prison, Deskovic witnessed three or four stabbings and cuttings every day. The vigilante mentality surrounding rapists and murderers alienated him, and there were several times during his incarceration that he was assaulted—one time where he almost lost his life.

“In prison, if you were defending yourself then you were fighting,” he said.

During his 16-year imprisonment, Deskovic lost all seven of his appeals and was denied parole. He wrote churches, reporters and non-profit organizations hoping that someone, anyone, would hear his case.

It wasn’t until 2005 he was advised to contact the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization in Manhattan that helps free wrongfully-convicted prisoners.

“I originally wrote them back in 1992 or ‘93, but was turned down by them,” Deskovic said. “Back then, DNA was not as sophisticated as it has come to be and a DNA database did not exist.”

This time, they agreed to take on his case.

The organization took the crime scene evidence, which already didn’t match Deskovic, and compared it to the DNA databank.

“The results matched the actual perpetrator whose DNA was only in the database because, left free while I was doing time for his crime, he struck again killing another victim,” Deskovic said.

***

Founded in 1992, the Innocence Project has been involved in the exoneration of 312 individuals in the United States alone, but the national registry of exoneration has documented 1,284.

Today, Deskovic devotes his time to spreading awareness about the systematic problems of the criminal justice system, particularly in the United States.

Coerced false confessions, like in his own case, are still a problem today, which is why, he says, all interrogations should be videotaped from beginning to end.

“It’s really a win-win reform because it would protect honest cops from false allegations of coercion and also make for better evidence,” Deskovic said.

Deskovic also advocates for the criminalization of prosecutors who intentionally withhold exculpatory evidence.

“I can think of no other job in which if somebody breaks the law, there are no criminal sanctions, other than for prosecutors and judges,” said Deskovic. “Why should there be special classes of people who are above the law?”

He also promotes inept public defender reforms by providing equal pay, so the best talent doesn’t go to one side, as well as limiting caseloads.

It’s not uncommon, Deskovic said, for public defenders to simultaneously represent 120 people.

“As college students, imagine if you had to carry 12 classes at once. Could you do your best? Would you put everything into it that it calls upon? Of course not. It would be impossible. So imagine multiplying that to the numbers that I’m talking about and consider that we’re talking about freedom and lives rather than grades and careers.”

***

Even though Deskovic has been out of jail for eight years now and for a crime he didn’t even commit, his conviction is still something that comes back to haunt him. When Deskovic was crossing the Canadian border for his lecture at STU, immigration refused to let him through. Although his record was expunged from the United States, it still existed on international databases. He waited hours for his lawyers to fax over his exoneration papers and then he was sent over to customs where they searched through everything—even his camera, cell phone and computer.

“I had never been convicted for so much as a violation, none of my friends were involved in any crime, and I was not a high school dropout,” Deskovic said. “It happened to me and it can happen to you.”

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