By Jeffrey Deskovic
“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.
As readers of the Guardian know, I served sixteen years in prison in New York for a murder and rape I did not commit. I was conclusively exonerated four years ago. The real perpetrator, Steven Cunningham, confessed to the crime after crime scene DNA matched him, not me.
Police and prosecutors knew the DNA was not mine. Yet, they fought tooth and nail to keep me in prison. How was I convicted? Putnam Country Investigator Daniel Stephens, Detective Thomas McIntyre, and current Peekskill Police Chief, Eugene Tumulo, worked together to get a false confession. I was a naïve, inexperienced and isolated sixteen-year-old kid back then.
These cops also fabricated other evidence. Their crimes were compounded by the egregious misconduct of then-Assistant District Attorney George Bolen, assisted by Westchester County Medical Examiner Louis Roh’s fraud.
My assigned attorney from The Legal Aid society, Peter Paul Insero, was not very good.
Former Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro vigorously fought all my appeals. She was aided in her bad faith crusade by various prosecutors, including A.D.A.s Joseph Latino, Valerie Livingston, John J. Sergi, and Steven Bender. All of them knew the negative DNA test proved my innocence. At the time, many innocent prisoners in New York and across the country had been exonerated by negative post-conviction DNA tests.
Cunningham remained free in Peekskill while I was unjustly locked up. As bad as I feel for having been unjustly arrested, prosecuted and convicted for his crime, I feel even worse that police and prosecutorial misconduct caused the death of a second victim at his hands, school teacher Patricia Morrison. Cunningham murdered her while I rotted in prison for his first murder. Those responsible for Ms. Morrison’s death should be held accountable.
I was released from prison on September 20, 2006. Since then, I have been a criminal justice advocate, and made it my life’s work to battle wrongful convictions and improve the criminal justice system.
I have given many lectures across the country about wrongful convictions; written many articles for the Guardian; and given many print, radio, and television interviews about my experience. I lobbied elected representatives, and testified at legislative hearings, three in New York and one in Connecticut.
One cannot remain anonymous under the circumstances. I am willing to sacrifice my privacy in order to raise greater public awareness about wrongful conviction issues.
I am often asked why I speak out. Here is why.
The public has a generally idealized view of law enforcement. People are often shocked to learn about what happened to me. It shakes their assumptions about our criminal justice system, that the innocent are never imprisoned, only the guilty.
I firmly believe public education is the first step toward legislative change. I raise public awareness by telling my story, and, inevitably, discussion of my experience leads to broader discussions about the systemic deficiencies in the criminal justice system that lead to wrongful convictions.
In addition, the public often underestimates the deficiencies of criminal defense for those who cannot afford a lawyer. For example, it is common in the Bronx for one public defender to simultaneously represent 120 clients. With a case load of that magnitude, it is simply not possible for one lawyer to give each client a maximal defense.
I encourage the general public to contact their elected representatives, voice their concerns about wrongful convictions, and insist needed remedial legislation be passed. Face-to-face meetings with elected representatives can be very effective. Many citizens are not aware that anyone can schedule a meeting with elected officials. It is part of their job to meet with constituents.
By speaking out, I can potentially influence elected officials. Some appear at my presentations; others have read my articles or an interview with me; others heard me speak at a legislative hearing or lobbying event.
Word of mouth goes a long way. I once gave a lecture at an upstate college. A student in the audience went home and told his mother about what he learned. Later that night, I went to a restaurant in the hotel where I was staying and overheard the mother talking about my lecture to her friends visiting from out of town.
At some point, people I reach may someday become elected officials. More likely, many of them will serve on juries.
Police sometimes make legitimate mistakes, and sometimes intentionally fabricate or doctor evidence and lie. Police are no more or less truthful than ordinary folks. The difference is their deceit can lead to wrongful convictions, and in extreme cases, framing innocent defendants. A juror aware that this happens is better prepared to scrutinize evidence carefully to arrive at a correct verdict.
In addition, the public is generally unaware that police sometimes extract false confessions from innocent suspects. When I speak at high schools or colleges, I keep in mind that some students may graduate to become police officers, prosecutors, or perform other roles in law enforcement. Learning about my experience may lead them to be more honest and conscientious in their work, do things by the book and not cut corners, and not look the other way when they see their peers misbehaving.
My hope is that, when the audience hears about what the Peekskill police did to me, future members of law enforcement among them will take care to avoid coercing false confessions from suspects, and corroborate all confessions against other evidence.
I do not begrudge my fellow exonerees who want nothing more than to forget their terrible ordeals and blend back into society. For me, however, this would be a terrible waste. I have been blessed with a good education since I was released from prison. It allowed me to learn from personal tragedy in order to become an agent of change.
It is not easy to reintegrate into society after being wrongfully convicted. Trauma and the after-effects of the experience are very difficult to overcome. There is new technology to learn, old relationships to repair, and a host of other challenges.
Telling my story enables me to extract a measure of meaning from my experience. Otherwise, all that suffering would be in vain. Working for change means my experience serves a higher purpose, and enables me to rise above what happened to me mentally and spiritually.
There are other innocents still suffering behind bars. We read about them every month, sometimes every week, in news reports of yet another person exonerated by a DNA test, recanting of perjury by a corrupt prosecution witness, new evidence which conclusively implicates the real perpetrator, etc.
When I suddenly found myself free, I knew I had to speak out to help the innocents still languishing on the inside. I tell about my experience as a way of supporting them.
Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Jeff is now a practicing attorney.