Exonerated after 16 Years in Prison

Exonerate - to clear, as of an accusation - free from guilt or blame

DNA tests proved that Jeffrey Deskovic did not commit a rape and murder for which he was convicted. Deskovic, now 33, was convicted in 1990 of raping and killing a high school classmate when he was 16. He was incarcerated for 16 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.

"Why was Jeff Deskovic prosecuted 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 Jeff’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.
Let me introduce you to Claudia Whitman, anti-death-penalty activist. She co-edited a 3-volume collection of essays (Frontiers of Justice) on the death penalty and other prison matters and founded the nonprofit National Death Row Assistance Network of CURE. After Equal Justice US publish her 2000 report, "Reasonable Doubts: Is the US Executing Innocent People?", she was deluged with letters from prisoners who claim they have been unjustly convicted of murder.

One of the letters was from Jeff Deskovic. Claudia corresponded with Jeff for a couple of years. He told her he had been convicted of raping and killing a classmate. Her investigative temperament soon learned that the DNA evidence at his 1989 trial showed his semen did not match the semen found in the body of Angela Correa, 15.

Deskovic told her he had exhausted all his legal appeals. Over the years no one who received his pleading letters had been able to help him with his case. When she mentioned his name to lawyers, they said, ‘"Oh yeah, Deskovic, he has written to all of us. There is nothing to be done with the case."

But Whitman began to research his case. She contacted a former FBI forensic specialist who confirmed Deskovic’s DNA results. She spent hours e-mailing colleagues and exchanging many letters with Deskovic.. She studied court documents and trial transcripts. She charted out his legal issues, summarized the case and began contacting lawyers and organizations she thought might help.

Sometime between 1994 and 1997 it became a requirement that all inmates submit to a DNA analysis and their DNA profiles were entered into the FBI National Databank. So in 1997 Jeff requested the Westchester County District Attorney to put his DNA evidence through the national DNA Databank. He figured that the real murderer might be incarcerated somewhere in the US. His request was turned down.

Claudia felt that pursuing the database match was the most expedient move they could make before pursuing other legal avenues. She convinced the NY Defender Association to contact the Innocence Project who used their reputation to persuade the new county DA to do the match.

The DA’s Office agreed to conduct DNA testing on the evidence in Jeff’s case and then ran the results through the DNA Database. The database search resulted in a "hit" – it matched a man who was already in prison on other charges.

Whitman says the role she played in Deskovic’s release was small. But others feel differently. The Innocence Project spokesman Eric Ferrero said, "Without Whitman’s encouragement, Deskovic would still be in prison. Whitman is among a handful of amateur investigators who devote a large part of their lives to helping out the low-profile cases everyone else has forgotten. Folks like Claudia are looking at the cases nobody has heard of yet," he said.

Whitman, who had never met Deskovic in person, said she spent an hour on the phone with him the night of his release.

It is all well and good to be blown away by such a dramatic story with its apparent happy ending. But what can we learn from this otherwise tragic loss of freedom in the prime of Jeff’s life?

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. This is the fifth man in New York in the last 10 months who was proven innocent by DNA after being convicted based on a false confession. The injustice of Jeff Deskovic’s case will only be compounded if we don’t learn from it and reform the system to keep it from happening again."

The Innocence Project feels Deskovic’s case highlights the urgent need for 2 specific reforms:

According to the Innocence Project, there have been 194 DNA exonerations nationwide. In fully one-third of these cases, DNA has also helped identify the true perpetrators of the crimes for which innocent people were wrongly convicted.

There is a heartbreaking reality that forms the backdrop to Deskovic’s ordeal. Jeff, who never murdered, anyone was put behind bars to keep the public safe. The prosecutor’s determination to convict without any material evidence or eyewitness testimony put an innocent boy in prison and left a murderer out on the street. Jeff’s conviction closed the case and the murderer was free to continue his criminal life. But the public safety was compromised for all of those years and the public, not the prosecutor, paid for this. Jeff is not an isolated case. The murderer was free to roam the streets in the 194 cases mentioned above.

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% Claudia Whitman

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% Claudia Whitman

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Phone (970) 533-7383


E-mail: claudia@NCCAN.org



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