Why do they collect DNA if they almost never use it?
By LAURA CANDLER
Jeffrey Deskovic was 16 when one of his female classmates, Angela Correa, was found murdered in the woods in their hometown in upstate New York. He says he didn't know her well, but she was always friendly to him in the school hallways. At the girl’s funeral, Jeffrey broke down in heavy sobs and visited her wake multiple times. It was there that some people started to suspect that he might have had something to do with the murder.
Three weeks after the crime, the police approached Deskovic and asked him to submit to a polygraph test. He agreed, not knowing that the polygraph business was run by an officer of the local Sherriff’s Department. Later, that officer testified that he’d been hired to “get the confession.”
Jeffrey took the polygraph test and was questioned for nearly seven hours with no lawyer present. They gave him nothing to eat. Interrogators told Deskovic that he was guilty of the crime, fed him information about Angela’s death, and provoked him into confessing for the murder he did not do. At the end of the interrogation, he curled up in a fetal position on the floor, crying, and made a false confession.
Based on that confession, Deskovic was convicted of murder and rape and sentenced 15 years to life in prison.
“I lost most of my friends when I was convicted,” Deskovic said in an interview with WUNC at the Innocence Network Conference in April. “I had a couple of friends that stuck with me for a couple of years, but…you end up essentially by yourself. My mother was the only one who consistently came to see me, but in the last six years I was lucky if I saw her once every six months.”
In 2006, the Innocence Project decided to take on Deskovic’s case. The Innocence Project is a national organization that litigates for wrongfully convicted people on the basis of DNA evidence and whose work has led to the exonerations of hundreds of innocent people nationwide.
Deskovic’s case became stronger when DNA evidence collected at the original crime scene turned out to match another inmate in one of New York’s prisons named Steven Cunningham, who was convicted of murdering another woman. Based on this evidence, lawyers with the Innocence Project helped overturn Deskovic’s original conviction at his retrial, and Jeffrey was released in September of 2006. It was a moment he’ll never forget.
“The judge told me that the conviction had been overturned and I was free to leave,” Deskovic recounted. “I got ready to get up to leave the courtroom, and after I took a step, the enormity of the moment kind of hit me. I was just overcome. I mentally couldn’t accept that this was over.”
When he stepped outside of the courtroom, the press was waiting.
“I gave an off-the-cuff two and a half hour spiel of everything I ever I wanted to say over the years but could never quite get anyone to hear me. Those were my first words of freedom. I stepped to the microphone, and I actually asked ‘Is this really happening?’”
But Deskovic had a long road ahead. He hadn’t gone to college. He’d never even been on the internet or used a cell phone. He’d never paid rent. He was 33 years old and had to learn basic skills that most adults take for granted. While he had a little support from his mother, they often ended their conversations in fights. Jeffrey became despondent and terribly lonely, struggling deeply with how to fill his time.
As the days passed, Deskovic started accepting speaking engagements, something that felt empowering to him. He enrolled in college and started writing newspaper columns about his experience.
After he received compensation from the state for his wrongful incarceration, Deskovic started the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, to assist others who’ve been wrongfully convicted. The Foundation investigates cases of wrongful conviction both with and without DNA evidence, and they also provide support for exonerees once they leave prison.
Deskovic earned a masters degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice on May 28 of this year.