In 2012 I was released from prison (only to be subsequently re-incarcerated). During my 4-1/2 months of freedom I became best friends with a fellow exoneree, Jeffrey Deskovic, who I was in touch with while I was in prison. I conducted this interview with Jeffrey through the mail. —Lorenzo Johnson
Lorenzo Johnson: What were you in prison for, and how much time did you do?
Jeffrey Deskovic: I was wrongfully imprisoned for 16 years, despite a negative DNA test, from age 17-33, wrongfully imprisoned for murder and rape. My wrongful conviction was based upon a coerced, false confession, extracted from me over more than seven hours, featuring a threat, false promise, withholding of food, all while being attached to a polygraph machine in a small room with a mountain of a polygraph technician towering over me, getting more and more ferocious as each hour passed; basically the third-degree, all of this happening in a different county than I live in, having been driven there by the police. By the officers’ own testimony, by the end of the interrogation, I was on the floor, crying uncontrollably in a fetal position. Other factors include prosecutorial misconduct, fraud by the medical examiner, and an inept public defender.
Lorenzo Johnson: When was the evidence discovered that proved your innocence, and how long did it take to get you out of prison?
Jeffrey Deskovic: In September 2006, I finally was able to get more sophisticated DNA testing via the DNA Databank, which not only reaffirmed my innocence, but also identified the actual perpetrator, who, left free while I served time for his crime, struck again, killing another victim three-and-a-half years later. I was released the next day.
Lorenzo Johnson: How long did it take to find someone to believe in you and your innocence to help you fight for your freedom?
Jeffrey Deskovic: My appeals were exhausted in 2001, and almost nobody was answering my letters seeking assistance until 2005, when investigator Claudia Whitman answered a letter that I actually wrote to a book author. She encouraged me to write to The Innocence Project again, and she lobbied the organization to take my case. Once the further testing was completed, I was released the next day.
Lorenzo Johnson: What was your reaction when you found out that your nightmare was over and you were finally going home?
Jeffrey Deskovic: When Nina Morrison, my lawyer, told me that the DNA matched the real perpetrator and that I would be going home the next day, I went into a type of mental paralysis and couldn’t accept it for three hours. Then, once she told me she needed my clothing and shoe sizes so other people from The Innocence Project could go shopping for me, and that there was other prep work to be done with the media, then it seemed real. Then I started worrying that something would happen between the rest of the day and the next day and the DA would change her mind. I was so used to the state doing what they always did—oppose me and win.
Lorenzo Johnson: You have officially committed your life to helping the wrongfully convicted by opening your own foundation, can you please let us know how your Foundation functions?
Jeffrey Deskovic: We only work on cases of actual innocence in which the defendant is not involved in any way, shape or fashion in the crime.
In our battle against wrongful convictions, we have four prongs:
- Raising public awareness—this involves doing lectures across the country, TV and radio interviews, press conferences, sometimes marches, and posting wrongful conviction articles;
- Seeking legislative changes—trying to get wrongful conviction prevention legislation passed;
- Exonerating the innocent—when deciding which cases to work on, we ask ourselves two questions: does the applicant have at least a colorable claim of innocence based on something objective, and whether we see a path forward that we can go down which can theoretically lead us to uncover previously unknown evidence of innocence so we can make an actual innocence claim in court. We don’t limit ourselves to DNA cases only like most organizations in the field do; we also take on non-DNA cases. Currently we can only handle non-DNA cases in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, while we handle DNA cases nationwide.
- Re-integration—helping those who have been freed put their lives back together again.
Lorenzo Johnson: You have assembled a nice core of good people in Richard Blassberg, Rita Dave, Millie Gutierrez, and an investigator. How does it feel to oversee your own Foundation?
Jeffrey Deskovic: Surreal. It’s hard to believe that I have people working for me. Yet, there’s a lot of responsibility. It’s primarily my job to raise funds by building a donor base of common people. Politics aside, the President raised $100 million dollars mostly on donations of $10 to $100, which shows that if we all do a little, we can accomplish a lot. We also need to land big donors, as well as build the visibility of the Foundation.
Lorenzo Johnson: Has your Foundation been involved in any cases yet?
Jeffrey Deskovic: Yes, we just played a role in helping William Lopez undo his wrongful conviction after he had been wrongfully imprisoned for twenty-three-and-a-half years. We currently have 12 cases that are under active investigation.
Lorenzo Johnson: What are your general observations about the massive scale of wrongfully convicted people in the U.S. prison system?
Jeffrey Deskovic: That although this can happen to anyone, wrongful convictions disproportionately affect minorities.
Lorenzo Johnson: What is your opinion about the shocking injustice involving me, Lorenzo Johnson. Not only are you my friend but your Foundation also co-represents me?
Jeffrey Deskovic: The injustice in your case is clear: the finding by the federal judge that there was legally insufficient evidence is tantamount to a not-guilty verdict. You should not, therefore, be in prison. It’s crazy that the U.S. Supreme Court granted the DAs certiorari and reinstated the conviction all at the same time, without allowing your lawyers to fully brief the issue. Had you lost at the Third Circuit and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari, no doubt you would have been denied, as defendants are routinely denied everyday despite often having the facts and the law on one’s side. The patent unfairness of everything is so blatant even Stevie Wonder could see it. Having to accompany you back to prison was one of the most traumatic events I have ever had to participate in. I still have a hard time dealing with it mentally and emotionally.
Lorenzo Johnson: Is there a way that people can help you help the innocent? If so, what is your contact information’?
By doing so, they will be opting to get text-message alerts about where I am speaking next, upcoming radio and television interviews, wrongful conviction events, rallies, marches, other grassroots activities, as well as other advocacy initiatives I and the Foundation are engaging in.
To contact the Foundation:
The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice
133 W 72nd Street
NY, NY 10023
Email address: JeffreyDeskovicFoundation@gmail.com