LOOKING BACK: Wrongfully Convicted Pennsylvanians Speak in Favor of Compensation for Exonerees

By Jeffery Deskovic

(Editor’s note: This is from a speech given at the 2022 Wrongful Convictions Day – Wrongful Conviction Day 2022, organized by Bikers For Justice)

I was wrongfully convicted in New York for a murder and rape, which I did not commit. I was arrested when I was 16. I turned 17 by the time the trial started, at which, despite a pretrial negative DNA test result, I was wrongfully convicted based upon prosecutorial misconduct or fraud by the medical examiner, coerced into a false confession, and subjected to a terrible public defender.

I lost seven appeals. I got turned down for parole. Ultimately, I was exonerated through DNA testing which identified the actual perpetrator after 16 years of incarceration. My mission in life is to free people who are wrongfully imprisoned and to prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the first place. So I have a nonprofit organization, the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which I started with some of the compensation that I received in neighboring New York. I obtained a master’s degree and I was not content with sitting in the front row of the courtroom, but I wanted to sit at the table and make some of the arguments. I wanted to represent some of the clients. So I went to law school. As I sit here today, I am an attorney. The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice is one of the groups along with Bikers for Justice and many other organizations in our coalition.

Pennsylvania is one of 12 states that does not compensate people when they’re wrongfully imprisoned. So if my case had happened in Pennsylvania, I would not have received anything. That’s the situation for the Pennsylvanian exonerees, some of which you’re going to hear from today. By reflecting upon my own life, once I was exonerated, thinking back to that time period before I had received any compensation and then thinking about my life now, it took me five years before I was compensated.

I was released with nothing, as are all exonerees. While New York State had compensation, there were no reentry services for me. So I lacked housing stability. I was always passed over for gainful employment. It was hard not having any income coming in. It seemed like all the would-be employers wanted somebody who had hit the ground running, who had job experience that was up to speed on the technology, which had passed me by in the course of my 16 years of wrongful imprisonment. GPS, cell phone, internet, even the variation of Windows was not even created before I was wrongfully imprisoned. So I was always passed over for employment opportunities. I lacked housing stability. At one point, I was a couple of weeks away from being in a homeless shelter. I couldn’t afford to hire any mental health professionals to help me deal with the psychological after effects of my experience. So it was a nightmare. I really went from one horrific situation being wrongfully imprisoned to another situation, which was very different from the idealized life I imagined that I was going to be coming home to.

I wasn’t even an employee. The one job I did have making money, I was just on a 1099 basis. I had to run a deficit with the IRS. I couldn’t afford to pay taxes and my car had to stay parked because I had no money for the gasoline.

When I was finally compensated after five years, I was able to pay for some treatment. I didn’t have to worry whether or not I was going to be threatened with the possibility of facing eviction. I knew I could pay my bills and I was able to feel confident. I was able to feel like a man, something that I hadn’t been able to feel during those five years without compensation. I was able to use some of the money to pay for getting a master’s degree so that I could be a more effective advocate. I used some of the money to start the organization, but also go to law school.

None of the advocacy I now do would be possible if I hadn’t received compensation for my wrongful conviction. So I empathize. I understand what it is to not have compensation, and that’s the reason why I’m here. It’s the reason why I’m here in Pennsylvania. We’re going to do everything we can to pass compensation here in Pennsylvania. Myself and colleagues have been meeting with elected officials talking about the idea we’re starting to get some buy-in. There’s a lot more work to happen, but I feel confident that with the statewide coalition, with many organizations working together, that we’re going to get this done.

I look at today as an important step of many events that have to happen, many trips to the legislature, many tactics to get this bill passed. But we’re going to do it. We’re not going to quit, we’re not going to give up. We’re going to continue to work together, collaborating like we’re doing. That’s the way to go. The era of going it alone is over with. That wasn’t all that effective anyway, and I’m happy to be standing here at this event sponsored by my foundation, sponsored by Pennsylvania Could Happen To You and organized by Bikers For Justice. And I love the support that we get. And you all walk the halls with us in Harrisburg as we meet with elected officials. I can’t say enough about this group. Thank you.

Larry Trent Roberts, wrongfully convicted, Dalton County, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:

I was wrongfully convicted. I was sentenced to life without parole. I served 13 years and eight months before I was exonerated. Being wrongfully convicted, you lose a lot, family members, friendships, relationships to name a few. When you get out, there’s nothing in place for you. If you get a conviction and you come home, there’s halfway houses, there’s healthcare, there’s a lot of things in place for you. But if you, you’re innocent and you come home, there’s nothing in place. It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing, it’s just simple. Pennsylvania residents that lose their liberty, they get wrongfully convicted.

Getting out and living without compensation, it’s rough. When you come home, you have to find a job. Most of us don’t have a license which is a requirement for most jobs. So when you get rejected, you have to start all over. When you apply for these jobs, they’re more likely to give them to somebody without a record. Everything that I worked for that I’ve accumulated over the years, I lost. I had a business before I was convicted. I was successful. I had a car lot, inspections, missions, tow trucks, three, four acres. I lost it all to a wrongful conviction. When I come home, I get nothing for that. But I had to come home and try to put my life back together again. It was hard. I’m still learning everyday things like a cell phone. I didn’t know how to work a cell phone. I was afraid of people when I came home because jail does a lot to you mentally. We probably shouldn’t get everything, but we deserve something. Everybody deserves something that gets wrongly convicted.

Tremaine Hicks, wrongfully convicted, Philadelphia:

I served 19 plus years, almost two decades, of a wrongful conviction. I was shot three times in my back by a Philadelphia police officer trying to help a woman that I did not know, and they covered it up. 20 cops testified against me. They planted a gun registered to a Philadelphia police officer and wasn’t reported stolen until the day after I was shot. It took 20 years to finally get me exonerated. I’ve been home for 22 months at this point and so this is all still new to me. This is still surreal. The New York Innocence Project is the organization that secured my exoneration. It was a thrilling event. When you go to jail wrongfully, you lose everything. Your whole life is just uprooted.

Pennsylvania does not offer any type of compensation for men or women that were wrongfully convicted and they’re thrust back out in society. So the hardship for your family is placed back on them again. Once you come home. They were supporting you all those years of your wrongful conviction. So your family absorbs that financial hardship. It is definitely a struggle. It’s definitely a fight. I do believe that PA will eventually do the right thing.

So when you come home and you have nothing, you need money to survive. You need housing, you need clothing. The list just goes on and on. And when you don’t have that, unfortunately, and I’m talking to a lot of exonerees, not just from Pennsylvania but from around the country, they’re struggling because, unlike them, I have family and friends. They’re on their own. They’re thrust out in the world staying up in hotels and scrambling for support. We need some type of coalition of just a network where we can depend and count on one another because it’s just that hard and just that terrible.

Bill Ayers, State President, Pennsylvanian Bikers for Justice:

Wrongful convictions are just not talked about enough. One day of creating awareness is not nearly enough. This needs to be talked about every day. Everyone who is working hard to advocate for victims of wrongful convictions need our help, need the help of every one of us, our friends and our family. How we can help them is contacting our legislators, our state representatives, and our senators. Unfortunately, the enemy to victims of wrongful convictions in Pennsylvania is our legislators who are not recognizing the laws and policies that have created hardships for these people. These legislators aren’t recognizing the harms that their families are experiencing. These legislators are the enemy to these victims, and they need to be informed that what they’re doing is wrong.

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.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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