From convicted killer to lawyer
What would you do if you were wrongly accused of a violent rape and murder you didn't commit?
How can you navigate a violent maximum-security prison sentenced to life at 17?
And where would you go, what would you do if you obtained your freedom after complete exoneration?
Jeffrey Deskovic, 45, graduated from the Pace University Law School three weeks ago to cheer on colleagues, family and faculty. Achievement alone merits celebration. Any graduation. But Deskovic's feat is just one of an incredible collection of milestones in an extraordinary man's life I'm proud to know and help.
Hollywood couldn't create as convincing a nightmare and salvation script as Deskovic's real-life saga.
Deskovic's Peekskill, New York, high school classmate Angela Correa was raped, beaten and strangled to death in November 1989. Detectives decided that Deskovic, who did not know Correa, was unnecessarily disturbed by the murdered sophomore's memorials. Police resorted to tunnel vision and confirmation bias, misinterpreting Deskovic's amateur zeal as a sign of guilt to help solve the crime. They took the 17-year-old Deskovic for a polygraph after talking to him several times, slowly feeding him information about the case.
For seven hours without a lawyer, family member or food, the young teen who had never been in trouble with the law was grilled. Detectives bullied, lied to him about the test failed. It's a classic formula for an untrue confession and method. The coercive questioning ended in a fetal position under the polygraph table.
Despondent, Deskovic pre-trial attempted suicide twice. He was "convicted by jury of 1st degree rape and 2nd degree murder, despite DNA results showing that he was not the source of semen in the victim's rape kit." Deskovic told Westchester Magazine: "It just didn't seem real. It was like I was observing it from the outside. I felt I was in Fantasyland."
The emotional high school teacher who grew up behind bars received an associate's degree and appealed to those outside who would listen. The Innocence Project took up his case after several rejections and won post-conviction DNA testing that revealed the true rapist and killer: Stephen Cunningham.
Injustice compounded injustice: While Deskovic paid the price for the crimes of the convicted man, Cunningham was free in 1993, committing a second murder. The victim was Patricia Morrison, his girlfriend. He was in jail for that tragically preventable crime when new techniques of forensic testing produced a hit in a state DNA database of convicted felons, and Cunningham admitted to killing Correa.
In 2006, Deskovic was released and won real innocence judgment. He received an apology from a district attorney's assistant along with multi-million-dollar civil suit awards from New York State, Westchester County, Peekskill and Putnam County. Transition to life as a free man wasn't easy, but as an exoneree, Deskovic didn't waste a single moment. He has received a bachelor's degree, a master's degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and now a law degree in a whirlwind attempt to avoid and reverse miscarriages of justice like the one he endured.
While at law school, he traveled to Armenia and Argentina to give unjust convictions, played an instrumental role in prosecutorial misconduct reform in New York State, gave hundreds of radio, TV and documentary interviews (including one for my 2017 program called "Railroaded: Surviving Wrongful Convictions"), launched the Deskovic Foundation for Justice (which helped exonerate seveteen).
Hey Hey! Can a bucket list balance this one?
Deskovic's rare ability to reach out to law enforcement and enlighten them, instead of demonizing them, makes him a valuable voice in criminal justice reform. Lt. Michael Devine of Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute was so impressed with Deskovic's recruiting presentations that he successfully recommended that the exoneree become a qualified teacher for the New Jersey Police Training Board.
Dr. Kevin J. Barrett, 32-year-old veteran of Englewood, New Jersey, Police Department and Chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Rockland Community College, says his students were "measured" by Deskovic's presentation and will bring the lessons they learned from Mr. Deskovic for the next 25 years of their careers.
And this story's rest just began.
Deskovic will take the eight-week bar test. His foundation just helped secure a retrial scheduled in September for Andrew Krivak, a man wrongfully accused of rape and murder in Putnam County, N.Y. In the year 1997. No physical evidence connected Krivak or his co-defendant Anthony DiPippo with the victim or crime scene. The prosecution relied on a bogus polygraph test conducted by the same official in Deskovic's false conviction. (I told you Hollywood couldn't make up!)
After three trials and 20 years in jail in 2016, DiPippo attended Deskovic's graduation with hundreds of others. He praised his friend as the future of the grass-roots innocence movement."