Monday, April 7, 2008

An Innocent Charged with Murder

April 7, 2008

Rob Reale- Baruch College The Ticker

Jeffrey Deskovic, a man wrongly convicted of rape and murder, gave a speech at Baruch last Wednesday, April 2. Deskovic's talk, lasting over an hour, was one of the most disturbing accounts of miscarriages of justice ever told. The organization that helped overturn Deskovic's conviction after 16 years, The Innocence Project, has another 215 convictions that it has helped overturn since its founding in 1992. Alpha Phi Delta, The Black Student Union and The Undergraduate Student Government sponsored the presentation.

In 1989, Jeffrey Deskovic was a 16-year-old high school senior living in Westchester, New York. When a female classmate had been murdered, there was an enormous public outcry since there had not been a murder in Peekskill in the last 25 years. Classmates noted that he was quiet and emotional at the funeral; they told this to the police who quickly decided that Deskovic must be the culprit.

Without an attorney and denied food, he was interrogated for seven and a half hours. Towards the end of that interrogation, the police threatened to assault him. He was told that he could go home after confessing, and that he would not go to jail, but instead receive psychiatric treatment. He gave a false confession, which essentially matched the officers' suggestions of how the murder took place.

However, DNA evidence had actually cleared Deskovic. Not only did the Westchester County District Attorney ignore this evidence, they fabricated a story to explain the evidence presented. The District Attorney fabricated a story where the victim had consensual sex before the rape - this alone did not raise any red flags. The lie became even more elaborate: the district attorney refused to test Deskovic to prove that the victim did indeed have consensual sex with him. At sentencing, the judge said, "Maybe you are innocent," and proceeded to sentence him to 15 years to life.

Deskovic spent 16 years in prison, mostly in the upstate Elmira prison which houses some of the state's most violent inmates. Deskovic states that there were three to four stabbings or cuttings per day. He discussed in detail, the horrible conditions, one of the most notable being when an inmate is assaulted. They were disciplined regardless of their role in the assault. Standard disciplinary action results in being restricted to a cell for 23 hours per day, two showers per week, no phone calls at all and being fed small quantities of food that was two to three days old.

Then, Deskovic told a story about his dying grandmother. His grandmother was his primary caretaker growing up and she became ill. Prison officials gave him the choice of visiting her on her deathbed or going to her funeral. They drove him four hours each way, wrists and ankles handcuffed, so he could spend exactly one hour with her.

In prison, Deskovic pursued an education, first getting his GED, then an associates degree. He started on a bachelor’s degree when former Governor Pataki cut funding for prison rehabilitation programs.

Deskovic detailed a 10-year-long appeals process in the span of an approximately 20 minutes. Then-District Attorney Jeannine Pirro (not the original prosecuting DA) twice argued against Deskovic's appeal. Once petitioning the court to deny a motion filed four days late, only because Deskovic's defence was late. The lateness was no fault of Deskovic or his lawyer; he had been given incorrect information by the court's own clerk.

In 2001, his final appeal, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear his case. After that, he spent years writing what he called "SOS letters" to beg for help. Every law firm he wrote to declined to offer pro bono services, but was happy to quote him exorbitant fees for their assistance; he received no replies from reporters or community groups.

From what he described as a "chance encounter" in 2005, Deskovic met a woman who encouraged him to contact The Innocence Project. He had contacted them in 1993, but DNA technology had gotten much more sophisticated, and so their policies for accepting cases had changed since that time. He applied to have his case heard, and six months later his case was accepted. The new Westchester District Attorney agreed to run the rape kit DNA against the state's database and there was a match for convicted murderer Steven Cunningham. Cunningham confessed to the crime and Deskovic was released from prison on Sept. 20, 2006.

Deskovic was released with nothing more than the clothes on his back. There is no policy or system in place to give the exonerated any financial support after leaving prison.

He continued his education and graduated with a bachelor's degree from Mercy College while on scholarship. He is currently awaiting the results of his LSAT test. He wants to become a lawyer and help other wrongfully convicted people.

According to the Department of Justice, over 2.5 million people convicted of crimes were incarcerated as of Dec. 31, 2006. A New York Times article from March 25, cites Professor Samuel R. Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, as calculating the false conviction rate for inmates sentenced to death as about two to five percent.

The article goes on to cite his estimation that 185,000 innocent people have served hard time in the past 30 years. Even with factoring in the lowest variable of about two percent, there are roughly 52,0000 innocent people serving time in jails and prisons across America. While it is not statistically accurate to extrapolate the two percent to the entire prison population, it is not an unrealistic estimation.

Baruch College sophomore Vincent Pullara, Jr. organized this event. Pullara has volunteered at The Innocence Project since February 2007 and showed a real passion for the cause in his opening remarks.

Through The Innocence Project, he has met people including Barry Scheck, Janet Reno and John Grisham. He is interested in coordinating more events on this topic, including educating students on their rights when dealing with the criminal justice system.

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