Deskovic went from convicted murderer to exoneree to law grad
What would you do if you were falsely accused and convicted of a brutal rape and murder you didn't commit?
How would you handle a violent maximum-security prison, sentenced 16 years to life, at age 17?
And where would you go, what would you choose to do, if you won your freedom back after full exoneration?
Jeffrey Deskovic, 45, graduated from Pace University School of Law three weeks ago to rousing cheers from friends, family and faculty. On its own, the achievement warrants celebration. Any graduation does. But Deskovic's feat is just one of an extraordinary set of milestones in the extraordinary life of an extraordinary man I'm honored to know and support.
Hollywood couldn't manufacture a nightmare and redemption script as compelling as Deskovic's real-life saga.
In November 1989, Deskovic's Peekskill, New York, high school classmate, 15-year-old Angela Correa, was raped, beaten and strangled to death. Detectives decided that Deskovic, who did not know Correa, had acted excessively upset at the murdered sophomore's memorials. Police succumbed to tunnel vision and confirmation bias, misinterpreting Deskovic's amateur passion to help solve the crime as a sign of guilt. After speaking with him multiple times, steadily feeding him information about the case, they brought the 17-year-old Deskovic in for a polygraph.
The young teen who had never been in trouble with the law was interrogated for more than seven hours without a lawyer, family member or food. Detectives bullied, cajoled and lied to him about failed the testing. It's a classic recipe for a false confession and undue process. The coercive interrogation ended with Deskovic in a fetal position under the polygraph table.
Despondent, Deskovic attempted suicide twice before trial. In January 1991, 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."
Maintaining his innocence from the start, the sensitive high schooler who grew up behind bars earned an associate's degree and appealed to anyone on the outside who would listen. After multiple rejections, the Innocence Project took up his case and won postconviction DNA testing that identified the real rapist and killer: a man named Stephen Cunningham.
Injustice compounded injustice: While Deskovic was paying the price for the guilty man's sins, Cunningham was on the loose in 1993, committing a second murder. The victim was Patricia Morrison, his girlfriend's sister. He was in prison for that tragically preventable crime when new forensic testing methods yielded a hit in a state DNA database of convicted felons and Cunningham confessed to killing Correa.