We sat on a bench facing what passes for a quadrangle on this miniature campus. Me, the pampered law student with a wife, a dog, a moderately priced home in the suburbs. Him, quiet but direct, reserved but optimistic. His beard was gone, and he sat in a suit that fit him rather well, which I presumed he had purchased for the day's events.
It was the part of the day when the chill turned to cold, but I felt guilty about the idea of putting on a jacket: would it look like I was eager to leave? Jeff asked how old the people playing soccer on the quad were. I knew a few of them and pointed them out, identifying their ages, most between 23-29 years old. Jeff looked covetous. "I miss that," he told me as we watched my classmates on the grass. "That's the life I wish I had. I don't have a life. That's the most difficult thing." He pauses for a moment as the goalie at the far end of the field makes an easy stop and passes the ball off to Brett, a friend of mine. "I'm looking to live my twenties. If I do, at some point I may start to feel my age."
His twenties were some of the 16 years Jeffrey Deskovic lost in Elmira Correctional Facility serving a life sentence for an unspeakable crime that he did not commit.
...but if you want a better sense of him, I strongly recommend the spread about Jeff that ran in the New York Times by James Estrin (check out the slideshow/audio on the left-hand side).
CNN filmed us talking for a bit while we sat, in advance of a piece being produced about the William Osborne case, which was about to be argued before the Supreme Court when we met. I had to miss a panel discussion that Jeff participated in earlier in the day because of a class, but a mutual friend from the Innocence Project arranged for me to spend some time talking with him after class, and so I found myself seated behind the off-camera producer for the segment, listening as fifty variations of "do you feel angry?" were directed at Jeff, who always responded in the measured and patient tone of an interviewee who's faced the same questions countless times before.
The cameraman wanted to get some B-roll, so we all headed downstairs to the front of the building to get some action shots: Deskovic walks in front of glass windows; Deskovic opens a door and walks inside; Deskovic talks to a law student on a bench. That's how we came to be seated on that bench, and how I learned the story of Jeffrey Deskovic's two past lives.
The First Life: The Quiet Kid
The first life was that of a quiet, lonesome kid in Westchester County, New York. That life ended when a 15 year-old schoolmate, Angela Correa, was raped and murdered in the woods. Jeffrey and Angela were in two classes together Freshman year, and one class as sophomores. She was always nice to him, and he was deeply saddened at her death.
Too saddened, in the eyes of some. Why would this reclusive teenager be as distraught as Jeffrey was at the wake of a classmate he truthfully did not know that well? Several students suggested to police investigators that they talk with Jeffrey, and that was how his first life began to end.
For almost two months the police questioned Jeffrey about the murder, determined to get him to admit his guilt. Jeff maintained his innocence. So the police offered him a chance to clear his name once and for all: a simple polygraph test.
To make a long, agonizing story of how the criminal justice system failed us all short, the investigators had Jeff skip school one day and took him to another county one without notifying his mother (he was, of course, still a minor), and gave him a rigged polygraph test administered by a plainclothes officer passing himself off as a technician. “What do you mean you didn’t do it?” his interrogators incredulously cried. “You just told us through the test that you did!” The Good Cop softly told Jeff that the other police officers were ready to attack him physically unless Jeff decided to “help them out.”
It took seven hours with no food or contact with the outside world for them to break Jeffrey Deskovic and convince him that all of what he was facing--the months of police harassment, the ceaseless interrogation, the accusatory looks, the shouting, the suspicion--would go away if he simply confessed.
Jeffrey--confused, hungry, frightened and alone--falsely confessed to the killing of Angela Correa after seven and a half hours of interrogation without an attorney or parent present.
That’s how the second life of Jeffrey Deskovic began.
The Second Life: The Convict
The case against him was nonexistent without that confession. The police had fixated on him without any real evidentiary basis for doing so. There was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, and in fact there was some damn convincing exculpatory evidence: the murderer had raped Angela and left semen inside her, which even by the rudimentary DNA analysis of the day was clearly not a match for Jeff. Further, during his “confession,” Jeffrey was reciting details that had been fed to him over the course of the past two months by the police and the media, though he flubbed several of those details (for example, he admitted to ripping pieces of Angela’s clothing that had been found intact, and his timeline didn’t quite sync with what was already known).
No matter. There was a confession.
Republican District Attorney Carl Vergari (a longtime fixture who’d held the job for decades) personally pressed forward with a full prosecution for murder. The more minor details that didn’t match up were glossed over, but the DNA mismatch was a problem. The analysis had been done by the FBI Crime Lab, and was conclusive that the semen was not Jeffrey’s. Likewise, a hair found at the scene matched neither Jeff nor Angela. So Vergari concocted a theory: despite what her family and friends said, Angela must have had a secret boyfriend with whom she’d had consensual sex prior to being raped and murdered by Deskovic. That explained why the semen found in her wasn’t a match for Jeff, but the remainder of the case stayed intact. It was an assertion without basis in fact, and made in spite of the fact that Angela would have had neither the opportunity to have sex that morning nor a history of sexual activity.
The jury bought it. Despite pleading not guilty and recanting his coerced confession, Jeffrey Deskovic was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison after three days of deliberations (deliberations might have gone longer, but the trial ran into December, and the jury had been told by the judge that they could be sequestered over Christmas if they did not return a verdict soon). At sentencing, just before ordering Jeff to be locked up, even the trial judge conceded he had some doubts, telling Jeff, “maybe you didn’t do it.” But the jury had spoken, and this judge wasn’t about to destroy his career.
Jeff was sent to Elmira, where he fortunately found the religion he credits with keeping him alive and sane during his ordeal. He began the appeals process in earnest.
That’s what brought him up in yesterday's New York Times.
His first appeal went to the state courts, which perfunctorily declared the evidence of guilt presented at trial (essentially amounting to someone else’s DNA and a recanted confession) had been “overwhelming.” The next court ruled there was no legal merit in his claims and flatly denied review. So he filed a federal habeas petition, but there was a problem.
In 1997, Congress had passed an Act restricting the habeas process and limiting time to file for review. Jeffrey’s lawyer, acting on bad information from the court clerk, filed four days too late.
Those four days destroyed Jeff’s best chance at release. The new Westchester DA was a hard, unsympathetic woman who gained her own measure of national fame a few years later in her aborted campaign against Hillary Clinton for the US Senate. Jeanine Pirro, now a TV judge, railed that the four day delay was inherently prejudicial to the people of New York, and that the fact that a clerk had misinformed Jeffrey’s lawyer shouldn’t make a difference under the law. If the judge agreed, Jeffrey would no longer be able to argue that the issues surrounding his conviction violated his due process rights. The judge agreed.
Jeffrey had one last shot at keeping the door open to overturning his conviction: an appeal to the Second Circuit. In April of 2000, ten years after his wrongful arrest, two judges of the Second Circuit ruled his appeal was without merit and dismissed his case. One of those judges was Sonia Sotomayor, and this is the case of hers that gives me the most pause in supporting her confirmation, because it serves as an example of formalism trumping justice.
Jeff was now officially locked out of the courthouse. There would be no further appeals over his unsubstantiated conviction, no examinations of his coerced confession, and no attempt to find the real rapist and murderer of Angela Correa. Jeffrey Deskovic was destined to become just another convict, a convicted murderer with no chance of ever leading a normal life, unless by some miracle he could demonstrate to the DA and the judges that someone else had committed the crime. The odds of that were nearly impossible...
...except for one thing: the DNA taken from the crime scene didn’t match. New York had begun an extensive program of DNA record-keeping, yet had never felt a need to re-examine the evidence from Jeff’s case. Re-examining the semen against this database might match it to someone already in the system, and give Jeffrey a chance of clearing his name. It was a long shot, but it was the only shot he had.
The story of how hard Jeffrey worked to get someone interested in working his case pro bono, how long it took for Pirro to be replaced at the Westchester DA’s office by someone with a modicum of professional integrity, and how the Innocence Project and attorney Nina Morrison miraculously made his case return from the dead would take as long to tell as it has to reach this point. Suffice it to say, when they finally ran the DNA against the database, there was a positive match. Confronted with this evidence, the real killer confessed.
It took three and a half hours before Nina could make Jeffrey believe that he was actually going home when she gave him the news--he didn’t buy it until she took his suit and shoe size so she could get him new court clothes.
His third life had begun.
The Third Life: The Exonoree
When they took Jeffrey to the courthouse so the prosecution could ask that his case be dismissed and his conviction overturned, his trial judge didn’t even make an appearance. Another judge rushed in and, in a matter of minutes, set Jeff free for the first time in sixteen years.
Jeff remembers the ride to that courthouse vividly. He was in the back of an SUV, wearing a suit, realizing that he was only a few inches of steel and glass from freedom, from a world he hadn’t been a part of for a decade and a half. He looked at the streets of his youth and didn’t recognize them. His second life in Elmira had lasted sixteen years--half his lifetime. It was all he knew.
When he walked into the courtroom to be released, there was cheering. He looked over and couldn’t recognize almost any of them: they were his friends and family, and they were nearly strangers at this point.
After the judge had ordered his release, they finally took his handcuffs off. The bailiffs cleared the courtroom, and Jeff let the moment sink in. He got up to walk out, and nobody stopped him. As he passed the last bailiff, an African-American woman, she began to quietly cry and wished him good luck.
He stayed at his aunt’s house that night. He felt like a stranger.
He sat outside that first night. He didn’t know how to talk to the people inside, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to simply go outside after dark.
That’s the way he seemed when we met--like a man sitting alone at night, still apart from the rest of the world and only beginning to find a comfortable place for himself in it. He says he feels like a twenty-five year old man in a thirty-five year-old’s body. He got his undergraduate degree at 34, on a campus full of 18-22 year-olds (“I felt like a parent, like I was babysitting or something,” he told me). And as we sat there, watching a pickup soccer game, that detachment was palpable. He’s still trying to navigate reintegration into society, but it’s hard for someone who came of age in a prison.
“I need to be serious,” he said, “but I want to run around, do energy-based things, date, hook up, go to historical places.... But the thing about it is, I don’t want to do those things by myself, and I don’t know anybody. I don’t have a social life - the ability to call people up and ask them.”
We watched the game some more.
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UPDATE: Some glaring omissions on my part deserve to be corrected. First, the Westchester DA's report on the conviction is public and can be read here, and you can visit Jeffrey's website to learn more about his story and his current activities working for criminal justice reform.