November 25, 2007
By Fernanda Santos, The New York Times
As a boy, Jeffrey Mark Deskovic could swim the length of a pool underwater without coming up for air. On sultry days at the Elmira state prison, where he spent most of his 16 years behind bars for a rape and murder he did not commit, Mr. Deskovic would close his eyes under a row of outdoor showers and imagine himself swimming.
For months after his release in September 2006, he had been yearning for a chance to dive in, to test his endurance, to feel that familiar sensation of pushing his body through the water, to get to the other side.
On a late-winter afternoon before giving a speech on wrongful convictions, Mr. Deskovic giggled mischievously as he stood at the edge of a hotel pool in Latham, N.Y., an Albany suburb, then leapt in abruptly, hugging his knees to produce a huge splash. In shorts and T-shirt, he sucked in some air and dived under, holding his breath. And holding it. He made his way across the pool in hurried, sideways strokes, and emerged gasping but smiling.
“Yes! Yes! I did it,” Mr. Deskovic yelled, his fists clenched above his head like a victorious boxer. “I still have it in me.”
A grown man with a full bushy beard, celebrating the simple accomplishment of an innocent youth. A tiny yet transcendent moment, one among many such moments of recaptured pleasures and newfound problems since his exoneration and release from prison last autumn.
Having walked out of the Westchester County Courthouse vindicated yet petrified of the unpredictable tomorrows ahead, Mr. Deskovic found that his first year on the outside was more turbulent than triumphant. Still trying to recover what was stolen from him, he is, at 34, a free man who has yet to feel truly free.
At least 205 men and one woman nationwide have been exonerated through DNA evidence since 1989, including 53 who, like Mr. Deskovic, were convicted of murder. In gathering information on 137 of them over the past four months — one of the most extensive such efforts to date — The New York Times found that many faced the same challenges Mr. Deskovic has confronted, like making a living, reconnecting with relatives and seeking financial recompense for his lost years.
But given Mr. Deskovic’s age at conviction (he was 17, one of about two dozen of the 206 exonerated inmates imprisoned as teenagers) and length of incarceration (about 35 percent spent more than 15 years behind bars), he has faced particular challenges.
He could be the assertive adult who articulately lobbied at the State Capitol in April to require videotaping of police interrogations. He could also be the overgrown adolescent who stamped his feet and pouted at a Grand Central Terminal kiosk in August when asked if he wanted his smoothie with yogurt or apple juice.
Having spent nearly half his life locked up, accused of brutalizing a high school classmate he hardly knew, Mr. Deskovic was sent into the world last fall lacking some of life’s most fundamental skills and experiences.
He had never lived alone, owned a car, scanned the classifieds in search of work. He had never voted, balanced a checkbook or learned to knot a tie.
He missed the senior prom, the funeral of the grandmother who helped raise him, and his best friend’s wedding.
He said he had never made love.
For six months, Mr. Deskovic got by on $137 a month in disability checks and $150 in food stamps from the federal government, carrying cans of tuna in his backpack. Now earning money through speeches and newspaper columns about wrongful conviction, Mr. Deskovic paid rent for the first time in his life in August, for a cozy attic apartment in Tarrytown that the county subsidizes because of his depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In September, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the police, the medical examiner, a prison guard and the governments of two counties, alleging that detectives falsified reports and coerced his confession, and that the prison guard groped and beat him. A separate lawsuit in the Court of Claims is planned seeking payment from the state for the wrongful incarceration.
Since January, he has been enrolled at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, and he expects to earn a bachelor’s degree in behavioral sciences in two months. Since June, he has studied daily for the Law School Admissions Test in hopes of soon going to law school.
At Mercy on a $22,000 scholarship, Mr. Deskovic has read Marx, Freud and Jung but has struggled to navigate the nuances of flirtation and friendship.
“These people are half my age,” he said one morning in a campus cafeteria filled with loud young men in baseball caps and baggy jeans. “They have their own social networks and I’m not part of it. They have direction. They’re going through the normal cycle of things.”
Mr. Deskovic’s life after exoneration has been punctuated by milestones like getting a driver’s license (and a $3,000 Pontiac Grand Am with a bumper sticker proclaiming, “Failure is not an option”), and new adventures, like playing table tennis at a Greenwich Village bar with people he had met online.
There have been confounding trips to the supermarket and painful reunions with his mother, hard-won victories over his fear of speaking in public and profound disillusionment over his own inability to accept his past.
And there was a bittersweet return to the courthouse in White Plains in May for the sentencing of the man found by DNA evidence to have committed the crime. There, the victim’s mother offered Mr. Deskovic an apology: “How I would like to turn back time and return to you what was cruelly taken away.”
Of course, she can’t. No one can.
“Sometimes,” Mr. Deskovic said one morning in his dorm room, “I feel that the only difference from here to prison is that I don’t have bars on my windows.” He was kneeling on his bed and staring at the neat lawn outside. “I’m free, but I’m trapped, and no matter how much I run, I’ll never make up for the lost time.”
Scarred Life, Severed Family
Carrying a box of religious and self-help books, a garbage bag full of legal documents and a few worn-out sweaters, Mr. Deskovic went from prison to Cobleskill, a speck of a town in central New York where his mother, Linda McGarr, settled after his conviction. He calls Cobleskill “the boondocks,” adding an expletive whenever he is angry at his mother, which is often.
While he was locked up, Ms. McGarr was Mr. Deskovic’s connection to the outside world (he has never known his father). He wrote letters and sent them to her to type. She, in turn, sent money for cans of oysters at the prison commissary. When he needed to badger a lawyer, she was his voice. But the relationship withered through the bars. Ms. McGarr, 60, said she tired of the lonely 150-mile drives to visit him. Mr. Deskovic said he resented her lack of urgency in tackling his legal appeals.
Two days after his release, Mr. Deskovic exploded: “How come you didn’t do more to help me?”
“I know you went through hell in there,” Ms. McGarr responded, “but I paid dearly, too.”
The next morning, Mr. Deskovic stuffed his possessions in plastic bags and boarded a train to Peekskill, the scene of the crime that scarred his life.
On Nov. 15, 1989, Angela Correa — a sophomore at Peekskill High, like Mr. Deskovic — slipped a “New Kids on the Block” tape into a portable cassette player and took her camera to a park near her home, snapping a picture of a dove perched on the roof as she left. Two days later, someone spotted her naked body in the woods.
The police retrieved hair and semen samples, which did not match Mr. Deskovic’s DNA; prosecutors argued that they were from earlier consensual sex. Mr. Deskovic, however, fit the description provided by a criminal profiler for the police, and raised investigators’ suspicions when he cried copiously at Ms. Correa’s funeral, though they were not close friends. (In a recent interview, Mr. Deskovic explained that he was always picked on in school and Angela was one of few students who were nice to him, once helping him with algebra.)
After repeated questioning over two months, Mr. Deskovic confessed during a seven-hour interrogation and polygraph test, telling the police he had hit Ms. Correa with a Gatorade bottle and grabbed her around the throat. In the lawsuit, Mr. Deskovic contends that detectives fed him these details, and promised that if he confessed he would not go to prison but would receive psychiatric treatment.
“I was tired, confused, scared, hungry — I wanted to get out of there,” he recalled recently. “I told the police what they wanted to hear, but I never got to go home. They lied to me.”
More than a quarter of all prisoners exonerated by DNA evidence had falsely confessed or made incriminating statements, according to the Innocence Project, the legal clinic that secured Mr. Deskovic’s release. Like many of those men, he had maintained his innocence since shortly after the confession, proclaiming at his sentencing hearing: “I didn’t do anything.”
“Maybe you’re innocent,” the judge conceded before sentencing him to 15 years to life. “But the jury has spoken.”
Back in Peekskill after his release, frosty raindrops pelting his skin, Mr. Deskovic ambled past the police station on Nelson Avenue where he was held after his arrest and up Brown Street toward Crossroads, the apartment complex where he grew up.
“I used to play kickball here, and when it snowed, I’d get a piece of cardboard and sled down this hill over there,” he said, staring at a slope between a tall brick building and a playground. “I used to have a life.”
“Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that there are people on other planets and that all of a sudden you’re dropped there, with no idea how these people live their lives, how their society works,” he blurted. “I’m this alien. I’m the man pretending he knows what the hell is going on around him when, in fact, he’s clueless.”
Growing up, Mr. Deskovic and his younger half-brother, Christopher McGarr, spent hours shooting hoops at Depew Park, swimming in a local pool or watching wrestling on television, then mimicking the moves of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T on the living-room carpet.
“I didn’t have no father growing up, so I looked up to my brother,” explained Mr. McGarr, now 30. “But when he went to prison, a part of me died.”
On the school bus, other children called his brother a rapist, a killer. So he stopped taking the bus. Eventually, he stopped going to school. Soon he followed Mr. Deskovic into the criminal justice system, racking up more than 20 arrests and several stays in jail for drugs, theft, assault and trespassing.
By the time of Mr. Deskovic’s release, the brothers had not seen each other for 12 years. They waited another six months, until Mr. Deskovic was speaking at Siena College, near Albany, where Mr. McGarr lives.
“I don’t see him,” Mr. Deskovic said as he entered the lecture hall.
“He’s right there,” his mother replied, pointing to a man on a couch.
Mr. Deskovic hesitated, pursing his lips to stop them quivering, then trudged over to his brother, who spread his arms. They hugged a long time — Mr. Deskovic in a suit and striped tie, Mr. McGarr in loose clothes and gold chains — as their mother snapped pictures and an uncle rolled video.
“It’s been so long,” Mr. McGarr said, rubbing his fists against Mr. Deskovic’s back.
But the brothers saw each other only once more, for a tense evening of bowling and pizza in April. Mr. Deskovic’s meetings with his mother have devolved into sporadic phone calls that invariably end in screams and tears.
“Too much time has passed; we have no connection,” Mr. Deskovic said. “My relatives don’t know who I am.”
In his canvas book bag, Mr. Deskovic carries a copy of a newspaper article about his exoneration, in case anyone questions why a convicted killer is walking the streets. The newspaper picture of him and his lawyers also adorns Mr. Deskovic’s new Web site (jeffreydeskovicspeaks.org) and MySpace page, which until recently included a plea: “Is anyone up to showing a man who has been away for 16 years how to have a good time?”
In his loneliest moments, when he scans the few personal contacts on his cellphone and realizes he has no one with whom to share his angst, Mr. Deskovic misses the predictability of prison life, where decisions were made for him.
At Elmira, guards woke Mr. Deskovic at 5:30 a.m. and escorted him to the kitchen, where he helped prepare breakfast for 1,800 inmates. He stood outside his cell for each of four daily counts; after the last, at 10:30 p.m., what the guards call the “quiet bell” signaled bedtime.
“If I was looking for entertainment, I’d stand by the chess players in the yard until someone challenged me” for a match, Mr. Deskovic recalled. For kinship and protection, Mr. Deskovic — a former altar boy who converted to Islam during his first year in prison — sought out fellow Muslim inmates. “If it weren’t for my religion,” he said, “I would have taken my own life in prison, or I would have lost my mind.”
On the outside, life’s pace is his to establish. During the week, there are classes, college work, psychotherapy sessions, meetings with a social worker and with the lawyers handling his compensation suit, plus practicing table tennis. Most weekends, he sits alone in his apartment, scouring the Internet for phone numbers of colleges, churches and other institutions that might be interested in hiring him for a speech.
He also trawls the Web for companionship, joining a hodgepodge of groups: “Westchester/So CT Social and Active Group,” “Straight Edge NYC” and a table tennis club.
One June evening, Mr. Deskovic took the train to the Fat Cat, a cavernous basement bar in Greenwich Village, to meet the table tennis players. As a duo played Sinatra on piano and trumpet, Mr. Deskovic ordered a ginger beer and stood across the table from a 37-year-old stockbroker who runs the group.
“I got the momentum, baby,” Mr. Deskovic said, bobbing side to side.
“I got the serve now!”
“I’m going to win! I’m going to win!”
Speaking With Motivation
On a brisk March morning, Mr. Deskovic arrived at the Mercy College cafeteria ahead of the breakfast rush, wearing a suit and carrying three ties on a hanger. He approached a woman wiping counters and whispered in her ear. She grabbed the silver tie with white diamonds and knotted it around his neck.
“I’m an adult and I don’t know how to fix my ties,” Mr. Deskovic said.
He wolfed down a plate of pancakes, then called Darren Wilkins, a concert promoter he met in December and hired to manage his career as a speaker.
Weeks before, Mr. Wilkins took Mr. Deskovic shopping in Harlem, where he bought three four-button suits. For inspiration, they have listened to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. For technique, they have watched videos by the motivational speaker Tony Robbins.
Together, they drafted a lecture describing the mistakes that led to Mr. Deskovic’s wrongful conviction and outlining changes to prevent others from meeting the same fate.
That March day, before speaking to the League of Women Voters at an elegant home in Bronxville, he and Mr. Wilkins, a Christian, held hands, bowed their heads and prayed.
“Public speaking is a way for me to find some meaning to what happened to me,” explained Mr. Deskovic, who has not applied for traditional jobs since his release, but has traveled across New York and four other states for speeches, including one in Texas in September.
In Bronxville, Mr. Deskovic rested his hands on a plant stand in lieu of a lectern. His voice was flat and soft. He seemed to deliberately lock eyes with each of the 16 women sipping coffee.
“If anything I’ve said here today has moved you in any way, I’d like you to join me in a movement against wrongful convictions and to get the death penalty out of New York State,” he said. “Can you make a phone call? Can you join a demonstration?”
Between speeches, Mr. Deskovic counts on donations of food, clothes and cash from people who have heard his story in the news, as well as members of local mosques and the Westchester charity New Beginnings.
He rarely eats out, but for the occasional $4 kebab. Mostly, he survives on Cheerios, tuna, canned corn and shrimp-flavored noodle soup.
On July 27, Mr. Deskovic got the keys to a one-bedroom attic apartment, in a yellow house with green shutters in Tarrytown. The living room window overlooks the Hudson River, a view much like the one he had during a short stint at nearby Sing Sing.
He trimmed his beard that day, shedding perhaps the last visible reminder of the man prison had made him.
A month later, a dean at Mercy College, Shelley Alkin, who had helped arrange Mr. Deskovic’s scholarship after his release from prison, took him shopping at Pathmark to teach him about cleaning products, what types of food he ought to be eating and how much he should expect to pay.
“And I have a plan for when I go shopping on my own,” Mr. Deskovic said proudly. “I’m saving up the empty containers so I can bring them with me and buy the same things all over again.”