One of the news stories that has really moved me over the past few weeks is the case of Jeffrey Deskovic. Thus far, the Deskovic story has been covered by the local media in depth, but it hasn’t received much national attention. Here’s a brief summary of the case from the Westchester Journal News:
Jeffrey Deskovic walked free for the first time in nearly 16 years yesterday after his conviction was thrown out in the rape and murder of a Peekskill High School classmate.
The 32-year-old was cleared in the death of Angela Correa because another man confessed to the crime after more sophisticated DNA testing linked him to the girl’s death. Authorities would not identify the suspect but said he is serving a life sentence for his conviction in an unrelated Westchester County homicide.
Typically when I think about DNA exoneration, I think about a case where there was no DNA testing available at the time of conviction. This case defies that stereotype. At the time of Deskovic’s conviction there was DNA testing; however, it was not as sophisticated as the current form of DNA analysis. But even the less accurate DNA technology was not the cause of Deskovic’s wrongful conviction. The first DNA analysis taken from semen at the scene excluded Deskovic (and so did the second more sophisticated test). The prosecutors assumed that this DNA came from semen of another high school classmate, who had consensual sex with the victim, but they never bothered to test the classmate’s DNA.
Deskovic was not only convicted based on shoddy investigative work; he also gave a false confession. I know many people are surprised that anyone would confess to a crime that they did not commit, but it happens more than many think. The Innocence Project researchers found that false confessions were given in 35 of the first 130 exoneration’s. Often defendants are deceived or coerced into giving these confessions, and in Deskovic’s case it’s important to remember that he was a teenager. I think the interrogation procedures for young people should be slightly different from those for adults. If teens can’t be interviewed by social researchers without parental permission and can’t consume alcohol, then we need to think about what sorts of protections can be given to teens interrogated by police. I wouldn’t be a fan of forcing police to get parental permission, but I do think that lawyers or other advocates should be more readily available to teens in the interrogation process whether they are charged with a crime of not.
Finally, after rejecting Deskovic in 1994, the Innocence Project decided to take up his case. They convinced the district attorney to retest the DNA, using the more sophisticated analysis, and entered it into the FBI’s CODIS system, which is a data bank of DNA for convicted criminals. Once the DNA was retested, not only was it inconsistent with Deskovic, but it matched a convicted felon in the CODIS system. The police interviewed the man whose DNA matched, and from what I can glean, they got a confession (his identity has not been revealed). At that point, the local DA decided to vacate Deskovic’s conviction.
This is such a tragic case for the Correa family and the Deskovic family, because nobody has gotten justice. As for Deskovic, he’s frustrated, and I can’t say I blame him. In an interview with the local media Deskovic elaborated on his frustration:
Deskovic then walked outside and spoke to the media for nearly two hours, seemingly offering all the things he wanted to say when reporters were ignoring his pleas from prison.
“I’m not standing here before you because the system worked. I’m standing here in front of you despite the system,” he said.
He expressed resentment at police who forced him to falsely confess, a prosecutor who did not drop the case when DNA results suggested he should, jurors who ignored the forensic evidence and the judge who could have set aside the verdict but didn’t. And he remained frustrated by the years of failure at the appellate level that ended only after the Innocence Project took on his case.
“I hit a wall and became very depressed,” he said.
He was asked if he was angry.
“The people I considered to be friends all left me. Prison is isolating. My family has become strangers to me,” he said, adding that he lost the chance to marry a woman he loved. “I don’t need to answer. Just answer yourself. Would any of you be angry?”
After a whirlwind week of visiting relatives, talking to reporters and spending time at The Innocence Project, whose lawyers and students had won his release, Deskovic knows his life is starting over. It’s daunting for him, and he complains that the state does not do enough once the wrongfully convicted are freed.
“I didn’t even get the $40 they give parolees when they get out,” he said. “I definitely don’t want to be on parole. I’m done. I’m clear. I’m free. But there are no follow-up services to help me reintegrate.”
Deskovic hasn’t had much time for fun stuff — no movies or nights on the town — or the inclination to spend the little money he has. As a Muslim, he is fasting each day until sundown for the holy month of Ramadan.
He visited the grave of his grandmother, Betty, who died while he was in prison, and before leaving Assumption Cemetery he stopped at Correa’s grave after being reminded that she was buried there as well.
“I would not have felt right leaving the cemetery without seeing her, knowing she was a short distance from my grandmother,” he said. “It would have been an expression of disrespect to her memory.”
Last weekend, he reconnected by phone with boyhood friend Martin Burrett and plans to visit him in Indiana in the coming months.
“That was a blast from the past. We were best friends,” Deskovic said, adding that he struggled a bit through the conversation. “The feeling is, I’m very much frozen in time while others have moved forward. It’s like talking to a stranger with a familiar name.”
Just to get around, he has to be dependent on the good will of others, which he suspects, and uncomfortably fears, will dry up when he is out of the limelight.
He certainly has a good point about a social support system for exonerated criminals, not that the one we have for parolees is good, but the fact that he couldn’t even get the $40 is really pathetic.
While I’m highlighting the Deskovic case , it is important to note that he is just one of several people to be freed thanks to the Innocence Project. You can view all of the 183 people exonerated by the Innocence Project here. Unfortunately, the project doesn’t have enough money or people to do thorough investigations for all of the people who request their help. They are also not the only group trying to challenge wrongful convictions. The Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University has helped with several exoneration’s. These organizations are able to take on a limited number of cases, and they tend to focus on only the most serious cases–usually rapes and murders, which makes me wonder about wrongful convictions for less serious times.
The Innocence Project highlights several causes of wrongful convictions–mistaken identity, official misconduct, false confessions, bad lawyering, junk science, snitches, and serology. They don’t go into detail about how race and class intersect to exacerbate these problems (a quick view of the photos reveals quite a few black men falsely convicted of rapes), but some of that information can be found in the links below.
Jeffrey Deskovic spent half of his life in prison. I certainly don’t blame him at all for being angry and bewildered. I just hope he’s able to get the amount of social support that will allow him to get an education and live the life that he should have been living all along, and I also hope we are able to fix the problems in the criminal justice system that lead to these sorts of cases.
What do you think should be done for someone wrongly convicted like Deskovic? What do you think is a just compensation? What do you think should be done to prevent these types of wrongful convictions? How common do you think they are?
The Race Effect in Wrongful Convictions (PDF file)