In 1990, when he was 17 years old, Jeffrey Deskovic was falsely accused, tried and incarcerated in the United States for the rape and murder of his classmate, even though there was evidence that proved his innocence.
Deskovic spoke to St. Thomas University students last night about his wrongful conviction, the time he spent in prison trying to plead his case, and the repercussions he still faces even after being exonerated.
In 1989 the body of a 15-year-old girl, originally from Columbia, was found in Peekskill, New York. When being interviewed by police, schoolmates of Deskovic immediately pointed him out as a subject of interest because he seemed strange to them.
“This is what the police said initially attracted to them to me,” said Deskovic. “The other factor they claimed attracted them to me was that I was overly upset at the victim having been murdered.”
After being coerced into a false confession by the police, he was arrested and charged with rape and murder. However, before the trial, DNA test results came back showing that semen and hair found on the victim did not match his own. But they continued with the trial anyway claiming fraud on the part of the medical examiner.
Deskovic said he feels like they just wanted to close the case because they were receiving a lot of pressure from the public. So they ignored the evidence and continued with the case.
“At the same time, the public defender that I had was not very good. He never interviewed, or called as a witness my alibi,” said Deskovic. “He never explained to the jury the significance of the DNA not matching me, nor using it to argue that the so called confession was coerced with force.”
Deskovic was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. He spent 16 years incarcerated, and after many pleas to review his case and the DNA evidence, he was finally released in 2006 with the help of The Innocence Project.
“They [The Innocence Project] approached the district attorney… and they got her to agree to allow me to have more sophisticated testing…,” said Deskovic. “They took the crime scene DNA evidence, which already didn’t match me, and compared it to the DNA databank… and the results matched the actual perpetrator.”
The perpetrator’s DNA was in the system because three and half years after he murdered the 15-year-old, he murdered a school teacher. By the time Deskovic was released, the perpetrator had served 13 years of a 20 year sentence. And when this evidence was presented, he was sentenced to 20 additional years.
Life after prison was not an easy one for him. He dealt with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder among other issues. And he also had to deal with the changes in the world; the introduction of cellphones, the internet and the changes in his town.
“…I’m in an alternate world, one in which I don’t belong,” said Deskovic.
Even though he was exonerated, he still faced the stigma of being in jail. He spoke of working with a female tutor a few years after being released. He said that even though she was fine with being around him, she had a friend that told her to be careful because even though he was innocent he still spent a long time in jail.
One of the most recent challenges he faced was getting into Canada. Deskovic said he was cleared to travel within the U.S., but wasn’t cleared internationally. The customs officer did a search on him and saw reports of his case and foundation; however the Chief still wanted his lawyer to fax over proof that he was in fact not a criminal.
After a press conference held following his release, Deskovic realized he wanted to take part in the innocence movement and serve as an advocate for those who are in similar situations like his, and to prevent future injustices from happening.
“If I can prevent injustice from happening, even just to one person, then at least I can take some solace in that,” said Deskovic. “I can make sense of what happened to me. And I truly believe that this is my calling.”
Edited by: Anika Duivenvoorden