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Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Good Example of Why Immunity Laws Should Be Revisited

Jeffrey Deskovic: 'I'm still paying' for wrongful conviction
The Journal News by Jonathan Bandler - April 14, 2011

Jeffrey Deskovic spent nearly 16 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of a Peekskill High School classmate.

He survived years in prison for a murder he did not commit and will now get millions for his ordeal. But 4 1/2 years after Jeffrey Deskovic's release, he is still trying to make up for lost time, struggling to be defined by more than his exoneration. "I tend to be seen as the sum total of my experience, that I'm just an advocate who couldn't possibly have a life outside that," he said. "I feel like I'm still paying for my wrongful conviction." Deskovic was 17 when he landed in prison after jurors convicted him of second-degree murder in the November 1989 rape and slaying of Angela Correa, a classmate at Peekskill High School. The jury relied on a false confession he gave police after hours of interrogation and the prosecution's spin for why it didn't matter that DNA found on the victim was not Deskovic's. It took nearly 16 years before a DNA match linked the killing to another inmate, Stephen Cunningham. He was in prison for murder in the death of his girlfriend's sister four years after he killed Correa. Deskovic was released in September 2006 and has been trying to adapt, socially and professionally, ever since.

On Wednesday, he spoke with The Journal News over lunch at a Hastings-on-Hudson diner, two days after the Westchester County Board of Legislators approved a $6.5 million settlement of the county's portion of his federal civil rights lawsuit. The settlement covers Westchester; its former chief medical examiner, Dr. Millard Hyland; and Dr. Louis Roh, the deputy medical examiner who testified that Deskovic could have killed Correa after she had sex with someone else. The lead assistant district attorney in the case, George Bolen, who highlighted Roh's testimony for the jury, was dismissed from the lawsuit in 2009 based on prosecutorial immunity — a ruling that still rankles Deskovic. "Bolen was in a position to hand the case back to police and say, 'Go out there and get me some real evidence," Deskovic said. "Instead, he used Roh's fabrications to try to win no matter what." The portion of Deskovic's lawsuit against Peekskill and Putnam County police involved in his arrest is pending. In addition to the city and county, it names Peekskill police Chief Eugene Tumolo; former city Detectives Thomas McIntyre, David Levine and Walter Brovarski; and former Putnam County Sheriff's Investigator Daniel Stephens, who gave Deskovic a lie detector test hours before his false confession. A lawyer for the Peekskill defendants, Brian Sokoloff, said the county's settlement showed Westchester acknowledged its major role in the wrongful conviction. "But what the police did was minimal in bringing that conviction," Sokoloff said. "They listened when he confessed." Deskovic declined to comment on the settlement, citing the continuing lawsuit. But he said he felt he was "achieving progress" in speaking out about changes needed in the criminal justice system. "I'm being recognized as someone who is using his experience as motivation as opposed to being someone this happened to," he said. He advocates daily — for the wrongfully convicted, against the death penalty and on behalf of political candidates he thinks will help reform deficiencies in the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, he's completing his master's degree at John Jay College and directs the fledgling Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice. The work on the heels of his prison ordeal saddles him with a one-dimensional reputation, he said, but he has no intention of giving it up. "If I was to disappear into society, walk away from all this, I would be wasting a tremendous opportunity to help make things more accurate," he said. Deskovic does extensive research and writes weekly about cases around the country. His thesis on wrongful convictions supports more than just traditional reforms, like police recording full interviews and not just confessions. He wants pre-trial hearings to establish that confessions are truthful rather than just voluntary and the criminalization of prosecutorial misconduct. With the death penalty, he focuses on the possibility of executing the innocent but also that "killing people who kill to show (that) killing is wrong" makes no sense. He networks regularly and has numerous friends on social media sites. But socializing has been difficult and dating particularly frustrating. "My background is still a hindrance," he said. "Some wonder how much of my experience in prison has rubbed off on me, that maybe I carry too much baggage from that." Deskovic knew that a payday was likely but spent his first few years of freedom "literally watching every dollar." He said he always worried about covering his rent, first in an apartment in Tarrytown and later in the Bronx, and paying for food and clothing. His finances began turning around last year when he settled a lawsuit with the state over his wrongful imprisonment for $1.85 million. "With things not as bleak, I could relax a little and focus on the advocacy and not have to worry about basic needs," he said. Deskovic will get $4 million from the county this year and $2.5 million next year. His dream is to spend years as executive director of his foundation, traveling the country, challenging and speaking out against wrongful convictions. He doesn't expect his new wealth to change who he is or what he wants to accomplish. "I'm still frugal," he said. "I just know I can pay my car insurance every month."

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