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article imageWrongly imprisoned man received no empathy from Sotomayor Special

By Sara B. Caldwell     Jul 15, 2009 in Politics
Jeff Deskovic was wrongly convicted of a rape and murder that he did not commit. DNA evidence did not link to him, but rather to a convicted felon. Yet all seven of his appeals were turned down, including two in Sotomayor’s courtroom.
With the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor underway, Jeff Deskovic is just starting to have his story heard nationally.
Jeff Deskovic remembers patiently sitting inside of the 2nd Circuit courtroom, barely able to contain his tense, worried thoughts. It had been 2001, his tenth year in state prison as an innocent man. This was his last appeal for a procedural ruling to be overturned, with Judge Sonia Sotomayor presiding.
It had begun in 1989. Deskovic, then 16, aspired to become an attorney. “I wanted to be an attorney,” he recalls, “because I had the impression that they are well thought of, are in a good career, can make a good living, and help people.” A quiet but bright teenager, Deskovic attended public high school in Peekskill, NY. He had good grades, didn’t do drugs, and was on-track for taking the SATs and applying to college.
Halfway through the school year, classmate Angela Correa, aged 15, was brutally raped and murdered. He was picked up by Peekskill Police while walking to school the next day. Transported to Poughkeepsie, NY (where a lie-detector was located), he endured 7.5 hours of police interrogation. Unaware of his right to attorney and his parents assuming that he was at school, Deskovic denied all of the allegations. Only in the final hour did he conjure up a false statement because, as he states, “one of the officers said that if I confessed, I could go home. I made up a story and told them. And when they told me I was going to jail, I curled up into a fetal position and cried.”
Innocence in prison
Jeff Deskovic  an innocent man  convicted
Deskovic just been informed that the jury had reached a verdict and that it would be read in a few moments.
Jeffrey Deskovic
In 1990, Deskovic was wrongly convicted-by-jury of a rape and murder that he did not commit. As he explains, “The jury had found me guilty based on a false, forced confession, despite a DNA Test showing semen found in the victim did not come from me, and that hairs found on the victim’s body also did not match mine.” Barely seventeen, he was sentenced to 15 to life by Judge Colabella, who as Deskovic recalls, even stated “Yes, you might be innocent.”
Two DNA-based appeals in 1994 were denied, with the New York State Court of Appeals ruling that there was “no merit in law that justified reviewing the case.” In 1997, Deskovic filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus, a petition for his innocence, citing that the police had violated his rights. Habeas corpus was a one-year-old law, however, and it was unclear how it would it apply to cases already in the system. The Court Clerk, as Deskovic explains, told his attorney that “the petition must be postmarked by the last date.” As of result, the paperwork was postmarked by deadline, but filed four days late.
Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, in response, denied the petition. “The D.A. said that those four days late are prejudicial to the people, that my petition was late and so she did not look at it,” Deskovic recalls.
Last chance by Sotomayor
Time barred to 2001, Deskovic appealed to the U.S. 2nd district court. Hopeful that he would be allowed to show DNA evidence exonerating him of all charges, his attorney made the following arguments: (1) To uphold ruling would be to cause a injustice to continue; (2) Opening reversing procedural ruling would open the door for more sophisticated DNA to go forward; (3) The filing error was caused by the court clerk, not by he and his attorney.
Presiding Judge Sonia Sotomayor upheld the ruling against him, denying his request. “She went for procedures over morals,” he states, “even though I had DNA evidence proving my innocence.” In not allowing his case to be reopened, to look at DNA evidence linking another convicted man to the victim, Sotomayor had Deskovic pay the price of someone else’s wrongdoing for an additional six years.
The Innocence Project, a legal aid group based at Cardozo Law School in Manhattan, denied Deskovic in 1994 because although he had DNA evidence confirming it was not his semen or hair, a national data bank had not yet been established. The technology was not sophisticated enough to determine whose DNA it in fact was.
A free man
Finally, in 2006, the Innocence Project agreed to pursue his case. The Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore agreed to run the DNA against the FBI’s DNA data bank of convicted criminals, called CODIS. Inconsistent with Deskovic, the DNA matched convicted felon Steven Cunningham, who had murdered his girlfriend in the early 1990s. On Sept. 20, 2006, at the age of 32, Deskovic walks out of Westchester County Courthouse a free man.
Back to the real world
After being isolated in prison for 16 years for a murder/rape he didn't commit, Jeff Deskovic finds it difficult to socialize.
Jeffrey Deskovic
Although having to endure a wrongful conviction and state prison at such a young age, Deskovic never gave up. “I first thought that I wasn’t serving all of that time--maybe one or two years. I thought that the case would be reversed,” Deskovic stated during our May 2009 interview. “Knowing that nobody was coming to my rescue,” he continues, “I had to clear myself, so I had to keep it together.”
The Justice Department estimates that each year, 10 per cent of those convicted across the country are innocent. “I was freed because the real murderer killed again and was caught. If not for Cunningham’s DNA being in the databank, I may still be in jail.”
Like Deskovic, if you are a good person, you don’t wonder if you are going to prison. But once there, “prison is dangerous,” he bluntly states, “with it seeming surreal in a nightmarish sort of way.” It proved to be a very traumatic experience for him. “You have to fight hopelessness, helplessness, depression, and despair,” he recalls. “You think about suicide, and you’re incarcerated far from family and friends--isolated from the real world.”
Speaking against Sotomayor’s confirmation
Judge Sotomayor reviewed his case twice, and upheld the procedural ruling. “She went for procedures over morals, denying me even though I had DNA evidence proving that I was innocent,” he explains.
President Obama, in his nomination speech of Judge Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, said the following:
And while there are many qualities that I admire in judges across the spectrum of judicial philosophy, and that I seek in my own nominee, there are a few that stand out that I just want to mention.
….a recognition of the limits of the judicial role, an understanding that a judge's job is to interpret, not make law, to approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice, a respect for precedent, and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand….
For as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, the life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience; experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion, an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.
And that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court.
Calling out against Judge Sotomayor’s nomination to Supreme Court, Deskovic is retelling his exchange. “To our dismay, Judge Sotomayor and her colleague refused to reverse the ruling. So I remained in prison for six more years."
Sotomayor wrote the following:
The alleged reliance of Deskovic's attorney on verbal misinformation from the court clerk constitutes excusable neglect that does not rise to the level of an extraordinary circumstance. Similarly, we are not persuaded that … his situation is unique and his petition has substantive merit.
Deskovic believes that he received one of the many “rubber stamp denials” by Judge Sotomayor. She was neither compassionate, nor empathetic toward him. Since his exoneration in 2006, thanks in part to The Innocence Project, he’s been raising awareness about wrongful convictions. More recently, it has been his goal to testify before the senate Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
“I want to testify before the Senate,” he explains. “This is only done when senators sponsor you. As of right now, I have no sponsors.” In fact, Deskovic has been omitted from the witness list for political reasons. “The Democratic Judicial Committee,” he explains “has said that they are only calling witnesses who will give favorable testimony from the judge, but that they would consider mine if the minority makes the request. The minority is giving me the run around and will not ask for me. I have been given the run around by Sen. Sessions office and Sen. Leahy's office.”
Some reporters now question the intentions of the Senators, going so far as to say that the Democrats “may be suppressing his testimony in order to provide smooth transition for Sotomayor to ascend to the Supreme Court.” Is this, as Deskovic calls it, a move to put “politics over justice”?
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