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  • 86- Jeffrey Deskovic: From Murder, Rape Conviction to Exoneree to Lawyer Who Frees the Innocent

86- Jeffrey Deskovic: From Murder, Rape Conviction to Exoneree to Lawyer Who Frees the Innocent

86- Jeffrey Deskovic: From Murder, Rape Conviction to Exoneree to Lawyer Who Frees the Innocent

At age seventeen, Jeffrey Deskovic was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of a classmate. Authorities knew his DNA did not match that of the actual perpetrator – who would later murder another young woman and mother of two. Nevertheless, they colluded to convict and keep Jeff behind bars for the next 16 years. After his exoneration and release, Jeff successfully sued the responsible parties, and used a substantial portion of the compensation to start The Deskovic Foundation — a non-profit that overturns wrongful convictions and challenges the policies that enable them. Check out this riveting episode of Open Mike to learn more about Jeff’s post-prison life as a lawyer, the Amazon Prime documentary about his case, and how this traumatizing ordeal helped him find his true vocation.

Show Notes

[00:13] Jeffrey’s bio and background

[01:10] Jeff, you were a sixteen-year-old high school student and you were arrested for rape and murder — can you tell us what that was like?

[01:36] What kind of kid were you?

[02:14] Why do you think the police targeted you?

[02:32] Jeff didn’t necessarily fit in at school, so some students referred police to him. When Jeff was emotional over the untimely murder of a classmate, the police misinterpreted that as a sign of guilt. A psychological profile conducted by the NYPD also draw similarities between Jeff’s personal attributes and that of a potential perpetrator.

[03:49] The way you describe those three things… that could have been anybody! There’s no way you could have committed this crime, but I’m reading about a confession you gave while in custody. Tell us about that.

[06:42] After a polygraph and interrogating a terrified Jeff for 6.5-7 hours, police eventually broke Jeff into making a false confession.

[06:51] Did they say you failed the polygraph?

[07:55] After the fact, did you get readouts of this test that showed you came up clean?

[08:18] So you were arrested after you gave this nonsensical confession?

[08:38] You’re an intelligent guy, you went to law school, you’re now helping others in similar positions. Looking back on that confession, can you shed some light on how easy it is to be coerced into giving a false conviction?

[09:55] Was this all on video tape?

[10:15] Are there now laws in most states that confessions must be videotaped?

[10:32] For the sake of time, you had a public defender, were tried by a jury, and convicted… how bad was your public defender?

[12:40] There was some misconduct by a medical examiner, can you give us some details on that?

[13:07] Six months after an initial examination, the medical examiner claimed to have remembered he found evidence the deceased victim was “promiscuous” in an attempt to help the prosecutor explain why DNA found at the scene didn’t match Jeff’s.

[13:40] Was there prosecutorial misconduct other than that?

[14:24] You had a pretty famous prosecutor, yes?

[15:37] How long was the jury trial? You’re incarcerated the whole time?

[16:04] Did you recant the confession right away and tell your family and lawyer?

[16:59] So, you’re tried as an adult, convicted at sixteen-years-old, and sentenced for seventeen to twenty-five years?

[17:28] You’re seventeen, you go to prison, are in solitary confinement for twenty-eight days at one point… how horrible was that? Was that the worst part of the experience?

[18:32] Being in prison at seventeen years old… and with staff passing around pamphlets to let everyone know you’re this horrible sex offender… that had to have been the scariest thing in the whole world!

[19:21] How did you get Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project to take a look at your case?

[20:06] Tell us about the DNA. It’s a little bit confusing… Your DNA wasn’t on the scene… what was the new evidence that was presented?

[21:15] After technological advancements in DNA testing that allowed for more specificity, it became apparent the DNA belonged to Stephen Cunningham, who had also killed and raped another person. He eventually admitted to the crime Jeff had been accused of.

[21:51] In the Amazon Prime Documentary, Conviction, you talk at length about getting that news. What was that experience like?

[24:54] The feeling of being released — how do you describe that?

[25:28] How was your family? Did they coalesce and reengage with you after all this?

[26:58] Jeff had infrequent visitors throughout his prison time, other than his mother who would visit every six months. He was putting ads in the local Sacramento newspaper for pen pals because he was so lonely and bored. He did find a pen pal who provided him moral support and kept him from going over the edge of loneliness.

[27:51] It sounds like your family basically abandoned you… but you get out of prison, your wrongful conviction case gets a financial settlement, and then you decide to go to law school?

[28:25] It took five years to obtain his settlement, during which Jeff struggled to find employment, housing, building social situations… but he was doing advocacy work in the meantime, and obtained scholarships to help him finish his education. Once he got his settlement, he used the funds to start the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice to help others who are wrongfully convicted and pursue policy changes. As of October 26, 2020, Jeff was officially admitted to the Bar.

[30:02] How did you like law school?

[32:15] You started this amazing foundation, the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice and have so far freed nine different people who were wrongfully convicted for different reasons, which is AMAZING. You’re using your settlement money to help others… I’m blown away by you. Thank you for what you’re doing for these people, selflessly. What is it about you that is compelling you to do this?

[35:17] Jeff is able to remain free of angry and bitterness because he’s already lost so much of his life and doesn’t see any point in not enjoying what he has left.

[35:44] It’s truly amazing. And you’re not only helping nine or ten clients, you’re pushing for policy change. What kind of traction have you gotten there?

[36:01] Advocacy efforts helped pass a New York state law making video recording mandatory during interrogations, as well as ID reform and DNA database expansion.

[38:15] What kind of team do you have working with you and so many initiatives?

[40:46] It’s unbelievable. When people hear these stories, one thing they always ask about is immunity. Where are we in this country in holding bad judges, prosecutors, and cops accountable for their dirty tactics in wrongfully convicting people. Is there any movement forward?

[44:01] How is your life these days? How is Jeffrey Deskovic doing now?

[45:16] You mentioned chess… did you like The Queen’s Gambit?

[45:39] What is the Queen’s Gambit, do you use it in your move?

[46:12] Jeff normally opens with the French Defence, rather than the Queen’s Gambit.

[46:27] Thank you for all the work you do and thank you for appearing on Open Mike. I hope everyone watching spreads word of your advocacy, and donates to your cause. Congratulations on becoming a lawyer, I know you’ll do amazing things.

[47:19] Share this episode, check out the documentary Conviction on Amazon Prime, donate some money if you can. Thank you for watching and supporting Open Mike!

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