Jeffrey Deskovic – The Long March to Freedom

Jeffrey Deskovic was a high school boy who had the misfortune of being convicted for the rape and murder of one of his classmates.  One of the reasons the police focused on him was because he seemed fascinated with the case and offered to help in the investigation.  His collaboration was rewarded by an inhumane interrogation session that left him sobbing under a desk after 8 hours.  As a result of the interrogation, he was convicted for a crime he did not commit.

Jeffrey Deskovic - Exonerated after 16 Years in Prison

DNA tests proved that Jeffrey Deskovic did not commit a rape and murder for which he was convicted. He was convicted in 1990 of raping and killing a high school classmate when he was 16. He was incarcerated for sixteen years for a crime he did not commit. Police had initially focused on Deskovic, a sophomore in high school at the time, because he seemed fascinated with the details of the case and offered to help the police investigate the murder.

 

Deskovic was convicted based almost entirely on a "confession" that he gave after spending approximately 8 hours without access to food in police custody without his parents or an attorney. During that time, he was held in a small room for at least six hours for a polygraph exam. At the end of the interrogation/exam, he was curled up under a desk in the fetal position, sobbing. Barry Scheck, a co-director of the Innocence Project, said, "If his entire interrogation had been videotaped, I doubt this confused, scared teenager would have been convicted in the first place."

In 1990 when Eugene Tumolo, now the Peekskill Police Chief, asked the FBI to test the DNA evidence, he said, the test would "either incriminate or exonerate" Deskovic. The testing came out in Deskovic’s favor, but the case proceeded. Since the DNA test excluded Deskovic as the source of a semen sample taken from the victim, the prosecutor speculated during the trial that the semen belonged to the victim’s consensual partner, although the partner’s DNA was never tested.

In 1994 Deskovic made a plea for help to the Innocence Project. He was turned down. Thus began a long series of letters pleading for help and relief from anyone he could find to write to. He exhausted his legal appeals.

Eventually, he landed a letter onto the desk of Claudia Whitman.  She was struck by the fact that the DNA evidence did not support the conviction.

Nevertheless, Whitman began an investigation of the case.  She contacted a former FBI forensic specialist, who confirmed Deskovic's DNA results.  She corresponded with Deskovic, emailed colleagues, and studied the court documents in trial transcripts.  She charted out his legal issues, and began contacting lawyers and organizations she thought might help.

In the late 1990s, it became a requirement that all inmates submit to a DNA analysis, and their DNA profiles were entered into the FBI National Databank. Deskovic requested that the DNA evidence in his case be run through the databank, but his request was turned down.  Whitman would not let this detail go, and she contacted the Innocence Project who used their reputation to persuade the new County DA to do the match.

The DNA evidence led to a man who was already in prison on other charges. Deskovic was exonerated after 16 years in prison.  Although this story has an apparently happy ending, there are lessons to be learned by this tragic loss of freedom in the prime of Deskovic's life.

The Innocence Project feels that this case highlights the urgent need for two specific reforms:

*  All law enforcement agencies must electronically record all custodial interrogations. Find out more about police interrogations.

*  If the crime scene DNA and/or fingerprints do not match the defendant, the defendant must have the right to check this evidence against the federal DNA and fingerprint databases.  The defendant must have this right both pre- and post- conviction. Read about Supreme Court Rejects Due Process Right to DNA Testing After Trial

At the time of Deskovic's exoneration there had been 194 DNA exonerations nationwide.  In fully 1 third of these cases, DNA has also helped identify the true perpetrators of the crimes for which innocent people were wrongly convicted. Deskovic, who had never murdered anyone was put behind bars to keep the public safe.  The prosecutor's determination to convict without any material evidence put a Nicholson boy in prison and left a murderer out on the street.  It was the public, not the prosecutor who paid for this.  This is the case in all 194 DNA exonerations.

More about Jeffrey Deskovic Here.

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