The Stolen Life of Jeffrey Deskovic

Innocence Project

An estimated 10,000 people are wrongly convicted each year in the United States. The Innocence Project helped free Deskovic, who served 16 years for a horrific crime he didn’t commit. Now it’s his mission to liberate innocent people serving time. This is his story.

We’ve all seen them — those episodes of 20/20, Dateline or other true crime documentaries. You, the audience, are presented with “unbiased” evidence. Are you sympathetic toward the defendant? The bailiff takes the envelope from the jury foreman and hands it to the judge. A crushing silence consumes the courtroom.

Driven by the evidence, you’ve perhaps already made up your mind. Innocent? Guilty? As an outsider looking in, you feel your instincts warning you that you could be wrong. As an empathetic soul, you might place yourself in the shoes of the defendant who teeters on the brink of a fate they may or may not have set in motion. Then the verdict is read: “Guilty.” Time shifts, and at that instant the life of the defendant vanishes into a giant, indistinguishable black hole.

Enter young Jeffrey Deskovic.

In November of 1989 Jeffrey was a bright 16-year-old from Peekskill, New York. He lived with his hardworking mother, his grandmother and his 12-year-old brother. He didn’t know his father, who’d left during his mother’s pregnancy. He’d never even known what he looked like.

Highly intelligent and younger than most of his classmates, he didn’t fit in at Peekskill High School. At home, however, he was an active kid in the neighborhood, playing impromptu street games of basketball, stickball and touch football, having Nintendo pizza parties, playing Monopoly and having sleepovers. He loved the Beastie Boys and collected comic books. He was a kid from the block, and he was happy there.

Then, on November 17, 1989, the body of Deskovic’s classmate, 15-year-old Angela Correa, was found. She’d been raped and strangled to death two days prior.

The community of Peekskill was deeply shaken. In their small city of 25,000, murders just didn’t happen.

Overnight, the carefree neighborhood changed. People were frightened and paranoid.

Deskovic, too, was devastated. Angela, he remembered, had been quiet, reserved and seemed like a nice girl. He’d noticed that she’d struggled with English and the language barrier made her somewhat of an outsider too. So when law enforcement began their investigation to find the killer, Deskovic was eager to help.

What followed would be a true nightmare — not only for the friends and family of Angela Correa but for Jeffrey Deskovic and those who knew and loved him as well.

It was my honor to sit down for a deeply candid interview with Deskovic, who, after spending 16 years wrongly imprisoned and being exonerated due in large part to the efforts of The Innocence Project, miraculously pulled his life together and now advocates to free innocent people behind bars.

DS: Can you talk a bit about your home life prior to November 17, 1989?

JD: It was my mom, grandmother and little brother. Mom was the breadwinner-type person and my grandmother was at home, you know, making sure we did our homework and stayed in line.

DS: In prior interviews you’ve said you were an outsider at school but had good friends in your neighborhood. Can you elaborate?

JD: The kids at my high school were into parties and drinking and girls. I wasn’t into that at that point. I was into hanging with the neighborhood kids, playing ball games in the streets (some we invented ourselves) and playing video games.

The school was close, about five minutes away. That’s why I’d wanted to go there, and I thought my friends would be there too. But it didn’t work out that way. Back in the first grade I’d scored the highest on some of the standardized tests and skipped a grade. Since then, I was always younger than my peers. I was mostly a quiet kid there and liked to stay to myself. I wasn’t an “in” kid.

DS: Where were you and what were you doing on the day of the crime?

JD: I was playing an improvised game of Wiffle Ball with a friend.

DS: How old were you then?

JD: The crime happened November 15, 1989. My birthday is October 27, so I’d just turned 16.

DS: Can you describe how the police came to charge you with Angela Correa’s murder?

JD: During the investigation, some kids at the high school told the cops they should talk to me because I stayed to myself and seemed strange to them. For about six weeks the police treated me like I was a suspect half the time, and like they needed me to help solve the crime the rest of the time. They asked me questions and congratulated me on my accurate opinion. Eventually they talked me into taking a polygraph test by telling me they had new information about the case they wanted to share with me, but they couldn’t unless I took a polygraph test. So I agreed. Instead of testing me at the local station, they took me to the town of Brewster, 40 minutes away. The polygrapher put me in a small room, didn’t give me a lawyer or any food. I felt isolated and overpowered. He did give me lots of coffee, and if you know anything about polygraphs, this made me very nervous [affecting signs the polygraph senses, such as breathing rate, pulse and blood pressure]. He used tactics like invading my personal space, raising his voice at me and asking the same question over and over. After six or seven hours, he told me the polygraph was indicating that I’d committed the crime and accused me of lying when I repeatedly said I was innocent.

The officer who for weeks had pretended to be my friend came into the room. He told me he could no longer help me and hold off the other officers, that I had to help myself now. He had me believe that if I admitted guilt, I could go home and would not be arrested.

At that point, I really wanted to just go home. I was overwhelmed, emotionally and psychologically. I was literally in fear for my life. So I gave them a story that aligned with a story they’d been feeding me. At the end, I was on the floor in the fetal position, sobbing uncontrollably.

I was arrested and charged with murder and rape.

Innocence Project

Deskovic’s mugshot at 16 years old. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deskovic

DS: Can you describe your emotions when you realized you were going to be charged?

JD: I felt angry and betrayed. Even up until that point, I didn’t realize I’d been arrested. It didn’t register. My mother was called to the station and we had to talk through phones. I was afraid but clinging to a false promise that I wasn’t going to prison, that I’d go to a mental hospital for a short time. I guess that’s how I kept some hope that things would be OK somehow.

DS: This has to be tough, but can you describe the days you were convicted and then sentenced?

JD: I was in shocked disbelief. Just before the trial, the results of a DNA test came in from the FBI showing that the semen on Angela Correa did not match [mine]. But they maintained the charges and prosecuted me. The medical examiner testified that Angela, who was only 15 and lived a sheltered life, was sexually active. It wasn’t true about her. Her family, immigrants from Colombia, made sure she never went out unchaperoned. That [the false testimony that she was sexually active] is how they dismissed the negative DNA results.

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Before the verdict was announced and justice failed. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deskovic

That day, it was bad. I remember when they read the verdict and I heard the word “Guilty,” I started talking to my lawyers, saying, “It’s not supposed to happen this way.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Especially because the first three counts they read, which were different theories of murder and manslaughter, were returned “Not guilty” and I thought I’d be acquitted of everything. My mother jumped up all excited, threw her hands in the air and shouted, “Yay!” like someone who just saw a great play in a sporting event. Then on the counts of rape and murder, they said, “Guilty.” It was like the wind was knocked out of her. Then the tears came.

The day I was sentenced, I wasn’t in disbelief anymore. But I was very afraid. I was desperately clinging to irrational hope: if my attorney made a motion, maybe the judge would overturn the verdict. I begged my attorney to file one, but he made only a verbal motion. The judge said maybe I was innocent, but he found no legal basis to overturn the conviction.

The judge said maybe I was innocent, but he found no legal basis to overturn the conviction.

I got 15 to life, which means you have to do 15 years minimum before you can appear in front of the full parole board for their consideration for discretionary release. It means I was doing at least 15 years and up to very possibly the end of my life.

I struggled. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Every time it started to sink in, it felt unbearable.

A bailiff saw that I was having a difficult time in the holding area, but there wasn’t anything he could do. He just said, “Do you want to give me anything for your family?” I sent out my wallet, tie clip and I think a comb, thinking I was handing over some mementos for them to remember me by.

While in the county jail, I tried to commit suicide twice. Once, I tried to hang myself. Another time, I’d heard about people slashing their wrists, but I didn’t have a razor blade so I improvised and tried to bite through my skin to sever the veins in my wrist.

DS: That’s terrifying. How did you survive physically, mentally and emotionally during the years of incarceration? 

JD: Barely. Mentally, a number of factors came into play. Definitely belief in God was one thing. Second thing: in my mind I wasn’t doing a 15-to-life sentence. I thought I was just doing a year or two until the next legal proceeding would happen, which I was sure I was going to win because I was innocent.

I tried to minimize the loss I was experiencing. I got the GED, went to college [classes in prison] to get an associate’s degree, and a further year toward a bachelor’s, until the funding for college education was taken away. I used to take vocational programs. I went to the law library a lot to take away the sense of powerlessness. It gave a sense a solace. I’d learn law and write letters, looking for help. It felt like I was still on my feet, like I was still fighting.

I’d learn law and write letters, looking for help. It felt like I was still on my feet, like I was still fighting.

When I’d finish writing letters each day, I’d read a nonfiction book. From 1998 forward, I started reading three or four books a week.

On Saturdays I’d listen to sports talk radio, but to me it was more like a lifeline to the outside. On Sundays I’d watch football games and cook in the cell. You come up with little routines. I learned how to play chess, and I put together a mini chess library.

I would cut out nature scenes [from magazines] and look at them. There was a box on the cell walls where you were allowed to put pictures. I put some of the nature scenes there and I’d just travel there mentally. A beach scene was my favorite.

But aside from the distractions, I had to fight off feelings of hopelessness, helplessness. Sometimes I thought about giving up. I thought about suicide again, a couple of times. I never actually tried to go through with it in the prison, but that was never for any honorable reason. It was more that I was afraid even that would go wrong and I’d have a permanent injury and my situation would get worse.

Stabbings and fights happened every day. I was beaten in the head with a 10-pound weight because I was thought to be a sex offender. In order to stay physically safe, I came up with different survival tactics: just minding my business, not talking out of my cell, never gambling, never getting involved in any controversy (like what was on the television), not borrowing anything from people. When violence did happen, I’d put my back against the wall. I tried to avoid sitting in the last seat at the table. A lot of silly things, maybe not-so-silly things, some of which I figured out, some of which people told me about.

I was always alert. You have to be alert there. Your adrenaline’s always flowing and you have to be ready to defend yourself at a moment’s notice.

I was always alert. You have to be alert there. Your adrenaline’s always flowing…

I would study which prisoners hung out with whom and the personalities of the guards. Who would it be best for me to be friendly with? Who could I relax around a little bit? Who did I have to walk on eggshells around? My plan was to avoid being noticed, be as nonthreatening as possible. It was a crazy way of living.

I didn’t socialize, or not socialize, with people based on what they were in prison for. To me it had to do with how they carried themselves and how they were with me. One relationship I’ll point out was with Frank Sterling, who, sadly, recently passed away. He got there a few years after me, and we kept each other going for 13 and a half years. We were convicted of similar crimes, but DNA eventually exonerated him [too].

DS: How did your family cope with your conviction? 

My mother went around to different members of the family, trying to put money together to hire a lawyer, but they all refused. When one family member was asked about it, they were open to the idea. But after they talked to an uncle who was in law enforcement, he told them he’d spoken to the police and I was guilty and not to bother putting money in.

DS: Who supported you while you were in prison? 

JD: My brother came to see me three times in 16 years because, well, he says he turned to drugs and alcohol because of my conviction. But he eventually cleaned himself up. My grandmother used to come and see me until she passed away in 1996. My mother was my only really consistent visitor, but the last five or six years, I would see her once maybe every six months.

Innocence Project

Jeffrey Deskovic with his mom shortly after he was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deskovic

DS: How did you become your own advocate while incarcerated? 

JD: A lot of time I did feel like giving in to depression — to just refuse to go to programs and everything, just lie there and be unresponsive, just lose my mind. What stopped me from doing that was that I didn’t have the luxury of losing it [my mind]. I knew nobody was coming to my rescue, so if I wanted to get out, I had to recruit somebody to be a champion for me — to build a bridge between me and the necessary legal help.

I read articles and literature on wrongful convictions and people who were exonerated. I’d collect and learn as much about the cases as I could. I studied law at the law library. I’d send letters to lawyers and try to find pen pals, people to have contact with on the outside. I hoped those conversations would naturally work their way around to “What are you doing in there? What did you do? What happened?” That’s when I could explain I was innocent and send the evidence, which was the pretrial DNA exclusion. And from there I could get help and ideas, and they would carry out what I couldn’t. Eventually I wound up with the help I needed.

Shortly before I went to the parole board and got turned down, I got in touch with Claudia Whitman, an investigator in Colorado. She said, “Look, you’re too far away for me to work on your case, but I’ll try to help you network.” She perked up when I told her, “There’s a DNA test that’s excluded me.” I sent her the paperwork, and she became the champ I was looking for. She tried for a year to get people to take my case.

Eventually she told me to write again to The Innocence Project, who’d turned me down 12 years earlier. She said the data bank had just been invented, so it was worth it. She lobbied them from outside the organization and got several respected legal firms and other people to lobby them.

Maggie Taylor was a case analyst at The Innocence Project who really believed I was innocent. She went up against their leading lawyers who didn’t want to take my case. She was persistent. Three times she re-presented the DNA evidence to them, each time applying different theories where the DNA could help my case. 

DS: How did you eventually get released from prison?

JD: First was gaining representation. Second, in 2006 Janet DiFiore became Westchester DA and allowed me to have further DNA testing without the burden of further litigation. Third, I got lucky. The actual perpetrator [Steven Cunningham] had committed another murder for which he got caught. His DNA was put into the system. So when I got the further DNA testing by DiFiore, [his] was a hit. It was then that she agreed to overturn the conviction and later dismiss my indictment, and her office prosecuted Cunningham.

DS: What did it feel like when you received the news that your conviction was being overturned and you were being released?

JD: I was in my cell at Sing Sing [Correctional Facility] and a guard said, “You’ve got a visitor.” I asked if he was sure, because sometimes they call the wrong person. He double-checked and said, “Yeah, they want you.” I hurried to my cell to put on a “visiting shirt,” one that I kept nice and decent-looking, and ran as fast as I could, thinking, “Who the heck would come to see me?”

In the visiting room, Nina Morrison said she was my attorney from The Innocence Project and said, “The DNA results are in.”

I remember saying, “What do you mean? They’re not supposed to be tested for another month.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” she said, “but the DA pulled some strings, the items were tested and it matched the actual perpetrator. You’re going home tomorrow.

“The DA pulled some strings, the items were tested and it matched the actual perpetrator. You’re going home tomorrow.”

“No, I’m not.”

We went back and forth three times.

She sat with me for the next three and a half hours, holding my hand. My head was spinning, and I was talking about random, unrelated things. Every now and then she’d say, “Are you ready to talk about tomorrow yet?”

I would say, “No, no,” trying to run from the thought.

Eventually she said, “We have to talk about this because the visit’s almost over. A ton of things have to be done between now and tomorrow as far as the media. And we have to go shopping for you to get clothes. I need your sizes.”

That’s kind of what made it real. Almost immediately I was afraid something would happen before the next day to cause the DA to change her mind.

DS: What about the day you got out?

JD: As someone told me once, “I lived another man’s dream.”

I remembered hearing another prisoner say that if he won his appeal, it would be like another inmate won the lottery because he was going to leave virtually all of his property to him. I wanted to do that for someone, so I separated my things into a short bag for me and the rest to leave to somebody.

My cell door opened. Immediately I ran what was the equivalent of half a block and dropped this huge bag in front of this new guy’s cell. I did that three times. I knew he didn’t have anyone on the outside or anything to speak of. You’re not allowed to give things to a person, and he started to thank me, so I said, “Hurry up and put this stuff inside your cell.”

The guard yelled up, “Deskovic, where the f— are you? Get down here now!”

I called out, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m coming!”

I went downstairs and brought my stuff to a room where they packed it up and itemized it.

I didn’t even know my own home address, so I used The Innocence Project’s to mail out my voluminous legal work.

They put the handcuffs and chains around me, and I said, “Why are you doing this? You know I’m going home. What do you think — along the way I’ll try to escape?”

That’s when they answered me, but it was the last thing in the world I wanted to hear: “Well, the judge might change his mind, so we’ve got to observe these protocols.”

A different officer said, “Look, don’t worry about it, Deskovic. Just take it all in and look around. This is the last time in your life you’ll be in chains.” That struck me.

“Just take it all in and look around. This is the last time in your life you’ll be in chains.”

On one side of the court was the media; on the other was my family. People were waving to me, but I was looking for the media. They’d written all those terrible articles about me. I kind of had my chest out and wanted to see if I recognized any of them, but I didn’t.

Suddenly the judge rushed in and my lawyer spoke. Then the prosecutor spoke. They were all saying the same thing, and then the judge rushed out. I got the distinct impression he didn’t want anything to do with this.

I got up to leave, and suddenly the enormity hit me like a ton of bricks. So I sat back down. People were talking to me, but their words were fading in and out. The bailiffs cleared the courtroom.

Another half hour later, I was ready. I got up. As I walked, every step I took, nobody stopped me. It got more and more real.

As I walked, every step I took, nobody stopped me.

DS: What was it like when you walked out of the courthouse a free man?

JD: I reached the point where I was walking out the door. An African-American bailiff had tears in her eyes. I looked up at her and said, “Thank you,” and she said, “Good luck.”

I went outside. Everybody was cheering: “You survived! You won!” The press was there, and I didn’t know what to say. My first words were “Is this really happening?”

From there, everything I ever wanted to say in 16 years all came out. As I was going down one train of thought, another thing came into my head and I talked about that. Before I knew it, two and a half hours had gone by.

Innocence Project

Deskovic with Nina Morrisson and Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project, the day of Deskovic’s release. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deskovic

DS: How did life change after your release? How did you get your life back?

It was very difficult. I wouldn’t say even now I have my life back. I have a different life than what it was. I will never get my life back.

The world was different. Technology was different. Cellphones, internet, GPS. What was considered to be in style was totally different. Neighborhoods were different from what I remembered. I never was able to reconnect with any of my former friends, except for one person.

I met with members of my extended family. I had memories of them, but when you go large portions of time without socializing with them, there’s no real connection there.

Money was tough. I did some speaking engagements, but that wasn’t consistent income. I landed a job as a columnist, but they wanted only one article a week. I was never able to obtain gainful employment because I’d never really had a job, so I had no job history and technology was unfamiliar to me. It seemed like everybody wanted someone who could hit the ground running.

At Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, shortly after being released. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deskovic

This led to a lack of stability in housing. I bounced from place to place and almost went to the homeless shelter. I was carrying cereal around, putting tuna, a can opener and a spoon in a backpack…

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Deskovic experienced difficulty reintegrating into society. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deskovic

Mercy College gave me a scholarship to finish my bachelor’s degree, and I lived on campus, which saved me from the shelter. When I graduated, the nonprofit Human Development Services of Westchester was my support. They rented an apartment for me because I fit their mental health criteria, having PTSD and anxiety attacks. I also dealt with issues reintegrating into society, and feeling like I was less free. I was in four hours of therapy a week for many years.

Innocence Project

Jeffrey Deskovic, 33, prepares for a class at Mercy College. After earning 90 college credits while incarcerated, he was given a full scholarship by the school and entered as a senior. Getty Images

Deskovic went on to earn his master’s degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2013 and is currently enrolled in his second year at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. His greatest accomplishment is his nonprofit organization, The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which, to date, has helped free six people. Deskovic states that from 1989 to July 24, 2017, the National Registry of Exonerations has documented more than 2,068 wrongful convictions (with only 148 women documented since 2015) and that a Wayne State University study estimates around 10,000 people are wrongfully convicted each year. This, Deskovic believes, shows a percentage of convictions that are wrongful at about 15 to 20 percent.

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Deskovic outside the law library at Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deskovic

Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three says, “You think this is a unique case, but this kind of thing happens all the time. “You still have innocent people on death row all the time.”

Nothing can really prepare you to look into the eyes of a man who lived this nightmare. His demeanor tells you he understands the world more deeply than you can imagine. Yet, kind and welcoming, Jeffrey Deskovic carries this weight.

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Future police officers give Deskovic a standing ovation at the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Academy. Police officers are the first line of defense against a wrongful conviction. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deskovic

With the help of a large portion of his long-awaited compensation money and donations from the public, Deskovic has made it his mission to reform the criminal justice system and offer legal support to overturn wrongful convictions. Deskovic acknowledges that incarceration rates for men of color are disproportionately high (one in 15 African-American men and one in 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated compared to one in 106 white men, according to the Bureau of Justice) and that wrongfully convicted women are unfairly overlooked by innocence movements.

Deskovic is grateful he can use his experience of wrongful conviction to raise awareness and pursue policy changes in the law while also exonerating the wrongfully convicted. He works long hours and takes no salary while trying to raise funds for the organization. To date, The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation has successfully helped to exonerate six people, including William Lopez (23 and a half years) and William Haughey (eight years, four months).

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William Lopez (L) was exonerated due to the efforts of the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deskovic

Most recently, he worked to free Lorenzo Johnson, who was released July 11.

Deskovic’s work as an advocate has not been overlooked. NY1 named him New Yorker of the Week, and the New Rochelle Chamber of Commerce named him Humanitarian of the Year. But The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation cannot accomplish its goals of exonerating the innocent without help from the public. Deskovic urges folks to consider the multiple ways they can donate.

As traumatic as his imprisonment was, Deskovic is acutely aware that his situation could have been worse. Had he been 18 when he was tried, and had it been in a year when capital punishment was on the books in New York, he surely would have received the death penalty.

Deskovic tells me, “Factors that serve to make a murder case capital and eligible for the death penalty are sex offense, brutal crime and community outcry. All of these elements were present in my case. It is likely that I would have been put to death for a crime I did not commit.”

The most precious commodity in the world is time. Chained, barred and reduced to a number, Deskovic lost a major chunk of his life to prison. How on earth does one ever rectify this? Yet Deskovic does just that — one exoneration at a time.

Learn more about The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice. end

 

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