Imagine spending over 15 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit?
That’s becoming an increasingly familiar story.
A report in February 2016 from the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations, states that “2015 set a record for the number of wrongly convicted Americans who finally found justice. There were 149 people last year who were either declared innocent or otherwise cleared of the consequences of their convictions or guilty pleas. Many had served some lengthy prison time—the average exoneree had served nearly 15 years—for crimes they did not commit.”
Currently, as many as 120,000 people are wrongfully imprisoned.
Jeffrey Deskovic is man who has suffered this fate after being arrested at the age of 16 for murder and rape of a 15-year-old girl, which he did not commit. He went on to serve 16 years in prison. Authorities knew his DNA did not match that of the actual perpetrator – who, three and a half years later, went on to murder another young woman and mother of two – but rogue police officers, prosecutors, and other law enforcement personnel knowingly and maliciously accused, prosecuted and eventually secured his conviction.
“My wrongful conviction was caused by a coerced, false confession; prosecutorial misconduct; fraud by the medical examiner; and an inept public defender, despite a pre-trial DNA exclusion which showed that semen found in the victim did not match me,” Jeffrey explains.
Delving further into detail of how he went on to serve time behind bars from the age of 17-32: “I was wrongfully convicted for the murder and rape of a high school classmate whom I barely knew, despite a pre-trial negative DNA exclusion, prior to being exonerated by DNA testing ten years ago. One of the major causes of my wrongful conviction was a coerced, false confession.
“For about six weeks, the Peekskill Police played a cat and mouse game with me in which half the time they would talk to me as if I was a suspect and the other half as if they needed my help to solve the crime. They would say things like, “The kids won’t talk freely around us but they will around you.” “Let us know if you hear any rumors.” They would ask me opinion questions and then congratulate me on my opinions being correct. They made me feel important. There were a few other psychological dynamics in play: one of them was that as a kid my fantasy career was to become a police officer; this early unexpected early opportunity to do this quasi-police work was a major reason, along with my age-sixteen- which allowed the police to get away with this absurd fiction. The other factor was that I grew up in a single parent household; I had never met my father, and through the good-cop/bad cop routine, I began to look up to the officer pretending to be my friend as a positive male role model. Eventually the police got me to agree to take a polygraph examination by telling me that if I took and passed the test, they would then be able to share some new information that they had recently received which would put me in a better position to help them.
“So the next day, rather than report to school, I instead went to the police station for the test. Since it was school day, neither my Mother nor my grandmother realized that anything was amiss; they thought I was in school. I expected to take the test at the police station as I had heard that other students had. When I got to the police station, I was instead driven to the town of Brewster, which was forty minutes away in Putnam County, whereas I was from Peekskill in Westchester County. That meant that I was no longer able to leave on my own; I was instead dependant on the police. They put me in a small room and I did not have an attorney present. I was not given anything to eat the entire time that I was there. There were three police officers from Peekskill, and the polygraphist, who was a Putnam County Sheriff Investigator dressed as a civilian who was pretending not to be a cop. Before beginning the test the polygrapher gave me countless cups of coffee. The premise of the polygraph is that when a person lies they will become nervous, the nervousness will result in an increased pulse rate, and it is the pulse rate which is measured by the machine. Other factors which would result in an increased pulse rate though are fear and caffeine.
“After finishing the coffee routine, the polygraph was strapped to me. After spending a couple of minutes on adjusting the machine to my body’s biofeedback, the polygrapher launched into his third degree tactics. He invaded my personal space. He raised his voice at me. He kept asking me the same questions, over and over again. As each hour passed, so too did my fear increase in proportion to the time. Towards the end he made a statement to me, saying, “What do you mean you didn’t do it? You just told me within yourself that you did; all we want you to do is to verbally confirm it.” That really shot my fear through the roof. At that point the officer who was pretending to be my friend came in the room and told me that the other officers were going to harm me- that he had been holding them off but could not do so indefinitely- that I had to help myself. Given that I had maintained my innocence for the previous 6 ½ to 7 hours, it was clear what he meant by that: they wanted me to confess. When it was added that if I did as they wanted, they would stop what they were doing and I could go home afterwards, that I would not be arrested: being young, naïve, frightened- in fear of my life, being extremely aware that nobody, including me, knew where I was- being totally overwhelmed psychologically and emotionally, not thinking long term but instead being concerned with my safety in the moment, combined with the push-pull dynamic of on one the threat of harm while on the other this false life preserver, I took the out which they offered and I made up a story based upon information which they had given me in the course of the interrogation. By the officers own testimony, by the end of the interrogation I was on the floor in a fetal position crying uncontrollably. Needless to say, I was arrested.
“I went to trial, but with no money to hire a private attorney, I wound up with a public defender who did a terrible job. He never presented my alibi- I was actually playing wiffle ball when the crime happened. He did not cross-examine the medical examiner who had altered his original findings in order to help the prosecution overcome the DNA Test result which showed that semen found in the body did not match me. He did not educated the jury on the significance of the DNA not matching me, nor use it to argue that the so-called confession was coerced and false. He didn’t ask the judge to recuse himself after the judge told him off the record to pick a jury because he did not want to be responsible for finding me not guilty. He would not allow me to testify in my own defense to explain why I falsely confessed and about the threat and false promise- which the cops had conveniently left out of their testimony. Since the interrogation was neither video nor audio taped and there was no signed confession, everything was dependant on their word. My lawyer put on no defense. In the end, I was wrongfully convicted and sent to a men’s maximum security prison, at the age of 17, with a fifteen to life sentence.
“I lost all seven of my appeals, often on non-substantive grounds. The first court ruled that there was “overwhelming evidence of guilt”- which made no sense since the DNA did not match me and I was ACTUALLY INNOCENT. They also ruled that the confession was voluntary. After that, I never received a substantive ruling. The Appellate Division denied my re-argument motion. The NY Court of Appeals denied me to grant me permission to appeal to them. I lost the Habeas Corpus Petition in federal court because the court clerk gave my lawyer the wrong information regarding the filing procedure which resulted in my petition arriving 4 days too late, which former DA Pirro’s office used to get the court to simply dismiss my petition as being late. From that point forward, I was stuck arguing that the procedural ruling against me was wrong. But I lost the next three appeals which challenged that ruling. That marked the end of my appeals. The only way that I could get back in court was if I could find some previously unknown evidence of innocence. That meant trying to find a lawyer and an investigator who would work for free, for I had no money with which to hire one. I wrote letters for 4 years, rarely getting answers. Then I got turned down for parole despite my seeming to be an ideal candidate based upon my educational record and overall disciplinary record. Ultimately The Innocence Project agreed to represent me. They obtained the cooperation of the new DA to allow me more sophisticated DNA Testing, taking the crime scene DNA evidence which already did not match me and entering it into the DNA Database. It matched the actual perpetrator, whose DNA was in the database because, left free while I was doing time for his crime, he killed a second victim for which he got caught. My conviction was overturned on Sept. 20th, 2006 and I was released, while all of the charges against me were dismissed on actual innocence grounds in November 2006.”
Since his release, Jeffrey has devoted his life to helping overturn others’ wrongful convictions, creating The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, a New York based 501(c)(3) committed to the prevention of wrongful convictions both in DNA and Non-DNA cases, and the reintegration of exonerees.
“I have delivered over 100 presentation across the country at universities, law schools, high schools, and community organizations; authored over 200 articles, with most of them being published in a weekly newspaper where I was a columnist for five years, but I have also been published in nine different publications; given hundreds of print, radio, and television interviews including multiple appearances on CNN, Al Jazeera America, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal; lobbied elected officials in New York, Conn., and Washington D.C. and testified at legislative hearings in NY and Connecticut where wrongful conviction prevention legislation was considered,’ he explains. “In collaboration with New Yorkers Against The Death Penalty, I helped ward off capital punishment reinstatement efforts in New York as well as participated in the campaign which legislatively repealed the death penalty in Connecticut, giving presentations and media interviews in key battleground districts. I have conducted numerous seminars at judicial gatherings, bar associations, prosecutorial groups, and other professional associations. I am certified as an instructor in New Jersey, which grants me the ability to present in police academies, and has given numerous presentations to soon-to-be graduating classes of police and correction officers. I co-designed a wrongful conviction college course syllabus which was taught at Farleigh Dickinson University and then I co-taught a wrongful conviction college course at Rockland Community College.”
Surprisingly, he doesn’t have any deep-seeded anger about spending years and years behind bars for something he simply didn’t do and sees, that perhaps, that led to his calling in life.
“I am but a vessel and a tool in the fight against wrongful conviction,” he says. “I would much rather have had this mantle passed to someone else and I simply have had a life not marred with wrongful conviction. Having said that, I can’t go back in time; all I can do is live the best life I can from this point forward. Having said all that, the answer is that I believe that I am fulfilling my life’s purpose; that I am supposed to be a significant factor in fighting wrongful convictions. To that extent, my wrongful imprisonment is a blessing to those who are already wrongfully convicted, their friends and family, as well as to those people whose wrongful conviction is prevented, their friends and family. I also think that there is a societal benefit, to the extent that each time a wrongful conviction is prevented, there is a chance that the police will continue to investigate and apprehend the actual perpetrator, which in turn often prevents additional crime victims in that often when the wrong person is convicted the actual criminal goes on to commit additional crimes, including murder and rape.”
His plans for the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice include among other things to exonerate more people, help pass laws to prevent wrongful convictions, both in NY and beyond, and eventually open a chapter of the foundation in all 52 States.
And what does Kindness & Hope mean to him?
“Kindness means doing something nice for a person or people, that one does not have to do, but chooses to do, with no intention at receiving any benefit therefore other than remaining true to oneself, including things that may be regarded as small,” he says. “I do not like to hope unless I believe that what I am hoping for has, at a minimum, some quasi-realistic chance of happening, because I don’t want to suffer the pain in my heart of disappointment. So while I am definitely not jaded, still believing in miracles, that is tempered somewhat by wanting a grounding in realism.”
To learn more about the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice and to donate, click here.
Here is the video of when he was released: NY Times-
In recognition of his advocacy work, he has won the following awards:
New Yorker of the Week:
Humanitarian of the Year: