By Ashley Oliver
After 16 years of wrongful incarceration for a murder he did not commit, Jeffrey Deskovic, now 42, came to York College to speak to students and faculty about his ordeal in prison and his triumph over despair through the support of investigative journalism and hope.
Deskovic’s ordeal began five months after the attack in the Central Park Five case, another infamous wrongful conviction. He was accused of the rape and murder of his classmate Angela Correa in November 1989. For several weeks detectives lied, manipulated and coerced him into admitting that he was involved. Despite the fact that DNA from semen found on the victim’s body did not match his, Dekovic was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life. He was exonerated in 2006 after DNA testing identified the murderer, Stephen Cunningham.
According to a recent study conducted by the National Registry of Exonerations, there were 127 non-DNA based exonerations and 27 exonerations based on false confessions last year alone. With the aid of the Innocence Project, Deskovic founded his own foundation for inmates who were wrongfully convicted.
Speaking to a classroom full of Journalism majors on May 10, Deskovic said he was devastated when he heard the verdict. “I held on to a false promise,” said Deskovic. “From ever since I was young, I thought only people who commit crimes were found guilty. I wanted to be a cop when I was younger. The same people who took 16 years from me that I could never get back.”
A report commissioned by former Westchester District Attorney, Janet DiFiore released in 2007 referred to the police tactics as “a textbook illustration of tunnel vision in action.” The report also states the police were overly dependent on an NYPD profile of the victim’s murderer.
“The sad thing is I saw those cops as male role models,” said Deskovic. “I didn’t have a father figure growing up. So I trusted them and they used that against me with no evidence to trace the crime to me. But being young and frightened, I was not thinking about the long-term, so I made up a confession with details of the crime they told me.”
Brooklyn resident Ian McDonald, said he is concerned about the lack of DNA testing for rape cases. McDonald is a friend of Onandi Brown, a 17-year old boy who was falsely accused of a gang rape last year.
“The amount of money that the city spends trying to spy on us, should be going towards the DNA sampling,” he said. “A false accusation or wrongful conviction in the 90’s is more understandable than one today because of technology. Onandi’s innocent but he still has to live with a reputation of a rapist.”
Deskovic said that although he has been free for 10 years, it is still difficult to fully reintegrate into society. He recalled his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression while trying to maintain his sanity.
“When I went to prison I was 17 and when I got out, I still felt 17,” he said. “Even though there are buildings that look the same, the people don’t. Everything is different and I always feel like I’m trapped in time sometimes. Applying for jobs was hard too because I was labeled and I felt like I couldn’t focus on one thing at a time. I always tried to fit in but I never did. I knew I had to admit to my problem so I could progress.”
Since his release, Deskovic won multiple lawsuits against Westchester County, the city of Peekskill, and most recently against the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, which had to pay him $10 million. In 2013, he established the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice in hopes of preventing wrongful convictions in DNA and non-DNA cases. He was also awarded a full scholarship from Mercy College where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Science and later earned his Master’s degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“Whenever you confine someone, especially an innocent child, in prison for any serious criminal act, they’re not going to be the same person when they’re released,” said Trazana Phillip, a paralegal for the Brooklyn Bar Association. “It’s good that there are foundations committed to exonerating innocent people, but I can only hope they’re just as good as making them feel human again.”
According to February 2016 statistics from the National Registry of Exonerations, there were 1,733 recorded exonerations in the United States since 1989. Out of the 149 exonerations in the United States last year, 17 were in New York.
Deskovic said he will continue to be a vocal advocate for the wrongfully convicted. He also advises people to learn their rights and share their knowledge with others on social media platforms. But he stressed the dangers of the media perpetuating stereotypes.
“I will continue to share my story with anyone,” said Deskovic. “When I was incarcerated I kept abreast with the news on my radio or subscriptions. That helped me get in contact with people who helped to free me. But the same media also painted me as a rapist. Once you apply all your knowledge of the law and your investigative skills before accusing someone, things can change.”
Deskovic’s foundation also helps recently released inmates reintegrate through housing, counselling and job-placement assistance. Despite his financial settlements, Deskovic still needs to raise funds to keep his non-profit organization functioning. He has started a web-based fundraising effort asking people to donate just $3 a month to pay for investigators, paralegals, lawyers and administrative fees. Anyone interested in helping can goto www.patreon.com/Deskovic.