Jeffrey Deskovic opens up about being wrongfully convicted

By Hailey Hensley

A popular advocate for restorative justice and the wrongfully convicted came to Rider on Sept. 30, 2019, to speak about his experience as someone who was wrongfully convicted, served a prison sentence and was exonerated.

Jeffrey Deskovic, founder and president of the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, was convicted of first-degree rape and second-degree murder in January 1991, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. 

In November 1989, a 15-year-old girl was found raped and murdered in Peekskill, New York, according to the registry. 

The victim was a classmate of Deskovic’s and according to Deskovic they “knew each other by name, but that was it.”

According to Deskovic, he was originally picked as a suspect because he “didn’t fit in” and was “overly distraught” by his classmate’s death. 

Deskovic originally saught to assist the police in its investigation and visited the police station frequently, even providing notes to help the police narrow down the suspects, according to Deskovic. 

“They [the police] would say things like ‘the kids won’t speak freely to us, but they will around you, let us know if you hear anything,’ They made me feel important…I wanted to be a cop when I grew up,” said Deskovic. 

According to Deskovic, this early opportunity to assist with police work made him more vulnerable to trickery from the police.

Police were able to convince Deskovic to submit to a polygraph test and drove him to a location that was over forty minutes from his home. He had no parent, guardian or lawyer with him, according to Deskovic. 

“I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t have any money on me. I had no way of escaping. I was totally dependant on the police,” said Deskovic. 

During the polygraph, Deskovic was provided with “at least six or seven cups of coffee” and was not given any food, according to Deskovic.

“It seems clear in hindsight that the purpose of the coffee was to amp me up, to make me nervous,” said Deskovic.  

The polygrapher was dressed in normal clothes, and never identified himself as a police officer. According to Deskovic, he was never read his Miranda rights and was not technically under arrest. 

“I pushed back all my concerns, I figured I was there to help the police and that was all that mattered,” said Deskovic. 

Deskovic was then under interrogation for seven hours and it was not filmed or recorded in any way, according to Deskovic. 

“He [the polygrapher] raised his voice at me. He asked me the same question over and over again. He invaded my personal space. The way he was conducting himself made me really frightened,” said Deskovic.

 He was then convinced that he had failed the polygraph test already and that he “might as well just confess,” according to Deskovic.

Deskovic was told that he was going to be harmed by police officers if he did not confess and so he proceeded to make up a story using facts he had heard from the police and the news regarding the crime, according to Deskovic. 

“By the time the interrogation was finished, I was curled up into a fetal position on the floor, crying uncontrollably,” said Deskovic. 

Shortly thereafter, Deskovic was arrested and indicted for the rape and murder he was coerced into confessing to, according to Deskovic.

At that point, DNA testing had revealed that DNA found on the victim’s body did not match Deskovic and he was falsely informed that he would no longer be pursued as a suspect if the DNA results excluded him, according to the registry. 

According to Deskovic, a medical examiner for the state of New York committed fraud in order to get him convicted.

Deskovic was convicted of the crime and was sentenced to 15 years to life. He was 17 years old at the time and was immediately placed into an adult maximum-security prison, according to the registry. 

During his sentence, Deskovic filed six appeals, all of which were denied. Throughout the entirety of his sentence, he maintained the fact that he was innocent, according to Deskovic.

Finally, in 2006, all charges against Deskovic were dropped on the grounds of actual innocence after new DNA testing was done and the DNA sample found on the victim was shown to match a convicted criminal who was already in prison for murder, according to the registry. 

Deskovic was released in Sept. 2006, following an apology from the assistant district attorney of New York, according to the registry.

After his release, Deskovic went on to receive his master’s degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and then in May 2019, Deskovic received his law degree from Pace University.

Deskovic now serves as an advocate for exonerees and the wrongfully convicted. His foundation, the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, has assisted seven wrongfully convicted individuals in getting released. 

Deskovic wanted to make very clear that wrongful conviction is a problem across the board, and doesn’t always discriminate by race, class or gender. 

“It can happen to anyone…It’s not a particular walk of life. This cuts across religious and racial and to a large extent socioeconomic class,” said Deskovic. “I hope to inspire some students to go on to careers that will help fight wrongful convictions. Some of these students might be lawyers or jurors in the future and I want them to keep this in mind.”

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