Fighting For Freedom

Photography: Natalie Chitwood

After serving 16 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, Jeffrey Deskovic ’19 is free and fighting for others.

Jeffrey Deskovic, Elisabeth Haub School of Law graduate who was wrongfully convicted in 1991
Bottom right, Deskovic, 16, the day he was arrested. To the left, 45, at Haub Law, weeks after he graduated with a juris doctor.

You gotta fight. For your right. To party. It’s karaoke night at a local bar and Jeffrey Deskovic is belting out the popular Beastie Boys song alongside some of his closest friends. To the twentysomethings at the bar, they may look like a group of guys who stopped in for a quick beer before heading to a baseball game, but what the audience doesn’t hear is that what sounds like a crowd-pleasing party hit is actually an anthem and this group of men, who all spent years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, are singing about celebrating their freedom. And Deskovic is the MCA, the glue that holds them together, because without the Deskovic Foundation for Justice, they wouldn’t be there, free from prison, knowing that their lives were just beginning.

This spring, Deskovic graduated from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, nearly 30 years after his life was turned upside down.

Deskovic was 16 years old when he was arrested for the rape and murder of his 15-year-old Peek­skill High School classmate. Though DNA results indicated he was not the source of semen in the victim’s rape kit, on January 18, 1991, Deskovic was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. “I didn’t do anything. I’ve already had a year of my life taken from me for something I didn’t do, and I’m about to lose more time and I didn’t do anything,” he pled to the court. “I will be back on appeal. Justice will yet be served. I will be set free.”

He started the appeal process the same day he was sentenced and, though at times despondent, he never gave up. Filing appeal after appeal, Deskovic was turned down seven times and denied parole. Even when his appeals were over in 2001, he wrote letters for four years, looking for legal assistance to help him find new evidence to overturn the conviction.

Even the Innocence Project initially didn’t want to take on his case. After several failed attempts, it was Maggie Taylor, an intake worker, who read Deskovic’s letter and believed him. Within nine short months, DNA evidence confirmed the real killer: a man who was already in prison for commit­ting a murder a few years later. His conviction was overturned and he was released on September 22, 2006, and on November 2, his case was dismissed on grounds of innocence.

Having been incarcerated half of his life, Deskovic walked out of prison a free man with a mission: to do everything in his power to prevent what happened to him from happening to others. Using $1.5 million he was awarded from a settle­ment, he founded the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted.

But Deskovic, who had earned his GED, associ­ate degree, and completed a year towards his bachelor’s degree while in prison, knew he needed to further his education and gain the knowledge and credentials to help others. He went on to com­plete his bachelor’s degree from Mercy College and a master’s degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, before turning his focus to law school to pursue his goal of exonerating others as an attorney. But, much like Deskovic’s life, his road to law school didn’t come without a few obstacles.

“It was a long road to get to and through law school,” says Deskovic, who had applied to Pace and 10 other law schools more than a decade ago. Not one of the schools had accepted him. But he refused to take no for an answer.

At that time, he met Bennett Gershman, JD, a professor at Pace’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law and one of the country’s leading experts on prosecu­torial misconduct, through a mutual acquaintance and would speak with him at various events.

“He fought for me,” says Deskovic. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have gone to Pace. I wouldn’t have graduated.”

Jeffrey Deskovic hugging his attorney John Miras after he was released from prison on September 20, 2006
Deskovic hugs attorney John Miras outside the Westchester County Court after he was released from prison on September 20, 2006.

As a law student, Deskovic was also an educa­tor, standing up in front of his classmates to give lectures on false confessions. He has shared his har­rowing story at least a hundred times: speaking in front of judges, lawyers, police officers, and district attorneys; creating a continuing legal education (CLE) course entitled Tips for Trial Lawyers from an Exonerated Man; and even a TEDx talk. Today, he’s a sought-after speaker, he serves on several advisory boards including as a global advisory com­mittee member for Restorative Justice International, and his advocacy has contributed to changes in the law to require videotaping of interrogations and better identification procedures, and he along with other advocates lobbied New York State legislators to pass a bill that would create the nation’s first State Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct, which Governor Cuomo recently signed.

“I don’t just think I know what I’m doing. There are laws that we’ve helped change and there are seven people who are home because of our work,” says Deskovic. “This is what I’m in the world to do. This is why I went through what I went through. It’s my mission, my purpose.”

Even while he was in law school, Deskovic’s foundation continued to take on cases to exonerate people who had been wrongfully convicted. Since opening its doors in 2011, they’ve helped free seven people, who, like Deskovic, wrote letters in hopes that someone would listen. Deskovic listened and believed in them, and he’s committed to freeing even more people. Currently operating with 22 volunteers (and a goal to hire in-house employees), the foundation is working with 11 clients, with about 600 cases and counting waiting to be read.

And for Deskovic, freedom isn’t the end of his work with his clients. He knows the pain and difficulty that comes with entering back into “a world that you don’t belong to,” and his commitment goes beyond that of attorney-client. They’re family.

William Lopez was the first person Deskovic’s foundation exonerated. Convicted in 1989 for killing a drug dealer, Lopez spent nearly 23 years in prison.

“He would call the foundation every two weeks, first to talk to the staff for updates on his case, and then he’d call me right away. He wanted to know what life was like outside and live through me. I was a lifeline,” says Deskovic.

The day he was released in his prison clothes, Deskovic was there to pick him up, took him shopping, threw him a celebratory lunch, and provided him with housing and counseling. Lopez would still show up a few times a week unannounced, sometimes with packed suitcases to stay the weekend. They did advocacy work together and they shared their stories. They celebrated milestones and holidays together. He wasn’t just a client, they were brothers.

“We’re tied together through the common experience of being wrongfully convicted, surviv­ing, and making it on the other side,” he says.

A year and a half after he was released, Lopez died suddenly from an asthma attack. “He died as a free man with the world knowing he was innocent,” says Deskovic.

When Jeffrey Deskovic was released from prison at 33, he had lost half of his life. He didn’t go to prom or finish high school. He didn’t get his driver’s license. He didn’t celebrate his 18th or 21st birthday. He had never voted or lived on his own. He never married or had children. He missed 16 years of holidays with his family. And while he will never get those milestones back, he will fight as hard as he can to make sure others do.

As another karaoke night comes to a close, Deskovic and his friends have one more song to sing. With their arms stretched around each oth­er, celebrating their freedom and their friendship, two of the most important things they’ve gained in their lifetime, the words come from a place no one in the room could truly understand. You just call on me brother, when you need a hand. We all need somebody to lean on. I just might have a problem that you’ll understand. We all need somebody to lean on.

Jeffrey Deskovic with Professor Bennett L. Gershman at graduation
Deskovic with Professor Bennett L. Gershman at graduation

22,094 Years Lost...and Counting

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, which provides comprehensive data on exonerations since 1989, 2,501 people have been exonerated in the United States. In total, these individuals lost more than 22,094 years of their lives. On average, that’s 8.8 years per person. And those are just the ones who have been exonerated. The number of wrongful convictions in America is staggering. Of the nearly 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the US, approximately 120,000 are wrongfully convicted, according to the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, and organizations like the Deskovic Foundation and the Innocence Project aren’t just changing (and in some cases even saving) lives, they’re bringing about criminal justice reform.

Among the most common reasons for wrongful convictions are false confessions, eyewitness misidentification, misleading forensic evidence, and inadequate legal defense. The leading culprit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations? Official misconduct, which was present in 1,347 of the 2,501 exonerations.

Haub Law Professor Bennett L. Gershman, one of the most sought-after experts on prosecutorial misconduct, served as a prosecutor with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office for six years and has authored several books on the topic including Prosecutorial Misconduct, Prosecution Stories, and Criminal Trial Error and Misconduct.

“Virtually every important decision in a criminal case is made by the prosecutor: who to investigate, who to charge, what to charge, who to reward, who to punish, and how much to punish. These decisions are momentous,” writes Gershman in Prosecution Stories. “While they help protect citizens and provide the safety of communities, these decisions also destroy people’s lives, break up families, ruin reputations, and imprison people with more substantial punishments than any other country in the world.”