I went to jail as a teenager for a rape and murder I didn't commit. Here are the reforms necessary to make sure it does not happen again.
I was wrongfully convicted in 1990 of a murder and rape in Peekskill, N.Y. DNA taken from semen found in the victim did not match my DNA. But misconduct at every stage of the criminal justice system led me to spend 16 years of my life in prison. That misconduct included a coerced, false confession when I was 16, extracted after many days of interrogation overseen by current Peekskill Police Chief Eugene Tumolo and others, as well as the falsification of other evidence.
Most people think that only a guilty person would confess to a crime. But I can tell you that scare tactics, threats of violence, food deprivation, being lied to regarding lie detector results and being told that you can go home if you cooperate have produced many false confessions. Of the 218 exonerations based on DNA testing, false confessions led to 25 percent of the original convictions.
"Maybe you are innocent," Judge Nicholas Colabella said just before giving me a 15-years-to-life sentence. Former District Attorney Jeanine Pirro successfully opposed all of my appeals and even blocked several attempts to get more DNA testing. My fortune turned in 2006, when The Innocence Project took my case. With the cooperation of District Attorney Janet DiFiore, further DNA testing proved who the real perpetrator was. On Nov. 2, 2006, all charges were dismissed and I was publicly acknowledged as innocent. I received some apologies, but none were from those who played a role in wrongfully convicting me.
Readjusting to being free, dealing with the effects of my ordeal, learning new technology, trying to rebuild relationships with my family and experiencing financial pressure have all been hard. I was released with nothing. The litigation I am pursuing will take two to seven years, with the state attempting to avoid giving me anything.
But I am not angry. Instead, I channel my energy into raising awareness about the problem of wrongful convictions, and the danger that the death penalty poses in executing innocent people. I give presentations about wrongful convictions at colleges, high schools, churches and organizations throughout New York and other states. This is my main means of income, but I never know when the next chance to give a presentation will be. I also publish an article each week in the Westchester Guardian. I give television, radio and newspaper interviews, willingly sacrificing privacy in exchange for raising awareness about the problem of wrongful convictions and the need to enact legislative reforms to prevent them. I have testified at several legislative hearings, and I lobby lawmakers to enact reforms to protect the innocent and make the system more reliable. As an additional tool for encouraging lawmakers to enact changes, I collect signatures for an online petition on my Web site, http://www.jeffreydeskovicspeaks.org/.
Nationwide, to date, there have been 218 wrongful convictions proven through DNA, and many additional exonerations achieved by other means, including the discovery of new evidence, materials purposely withheld from the defense, and the recantation of eyewitness identifications. During the time I spent wrongfully incarcerated -- 16 years -- I immersed myself in wrongful conviction literature. Now that I'm free, I continue to study the subject, so I'm aware of the causes of wrongful convictions, well beyond what happened in my case. Here are the reforms that are needed in order to produce a more accurate justice system. If you agree with these changes, please sign the petition on my Web site and encourage others to do so as well. Also, call your local representatives and ask them to institute them.
False confessions have accounted for 25 percent of the 218 DNA exonerations.
All interrogations should be videotaped, from beginning to end. This would prevent police from concealing abusive tactics they may have used from their testimony. It would allow a complete and accurate record of who said what, when, and in what context. It would also protect honest police officers from false allegations of coercion. The use of polygraph tests, lying to suspects by claiming to have evidence of their guilt, and prolonged interrogations over many hours should be outlawed.
All of these tactics have been linked to false confessions. Studies have revealed that such tactics convey to suspects that, no matter what, they will be arrested for something they did not do; it's just a matter of whether they will make it worse on themselves by maintaining their innocence. It is especially critical that interrogations of the mentally ill or the mentally retarded only take place with a lawyer present, because mentally ill and mentally retarded people often try to compensate for their mental deficiencies by being compliant in the face of authority.
Confession testimony is devastating to defendants, resulting in a conviction 80 percent of the time. Before evidence obtained through a confession is allowed at trial, a pretrial hearing on the confession itself should be conducted, akin to a Wade hearing in which the accuracy of an eyewitness identification is reviewed. Existing pretrial procedures, which are only aimed at determining whether a confession is given willingly by a suspect, are not enough.
Witness misidentification has been the cause of wrongful convictions in 75 percent of the 218 DNA exonerations.
Sequential lineups and sequential photo arrays should be used, in which a victim is shown one suspect at a time, rather than viewing everybody at once. Suspects included in a photo array or lineup should resemble each other so that no one sticks out.
The victim should be told that the perpetrator may not be present, to prevent victims from having undue confidence that the perpetrator is there, thus leading to a misidentification. Victims should be told that the investigation will continue if they don't make an identification so that they don't feel pressured into making an ID.
The officers conducting the lineup should themselves remain unaware of the identity of the suspect, to prevent them from giving inadvertent cues or clues.
Confidence statements, in which a victim states on a scale of 1 to 10 how confident they are about their identification, should be taken, to give courts and juries further insight.
The lineup or photo array should be recorded, to ensure its integrity.
Incentivized witnessing -- in which a witness is rewarded for testifying, be it with a lesser prison sentence, dropped charges or financial compensation -- has been the cause of wrongful convictions in 15 percent of the 218 DNA exonerations. The practice of incentivized witnessing should be ended; those who have evidence should come forward on a moral basis, not because they stand to benefit. When desperate prisoners have been caught red-handed committing a crime and they have no truthful information to trade on, they falsely implicate others.
Reform Pertaining to Evidence
Currently, there is no standardized system for ensuring that evidence is preserved and available for inspection and testing. Often the first obstacle for a wrongfully convicted person is determining whether the evidence can be located and whether it has been destroyed. If it has, an innocent person can remain incarcerated with no way to prove his or her innocence.
It should be a crime when police and prosecutors purposely withhold evidence. History shows that with no personal penalty, morality alone is not enough to restrain some rogue police officers and prosecutors.
Without quality attorneys, innocent defendants will continue to be wrongfully convicted, and cases will not have just and fair outcomes.
In every state, there should be one standardized system of defense for the poor, as advocated in "The State of Indigent Defense in New York," a report prepared by the Spangenberg Group for New York Court of Appeals Chief Justice Judith Kaye. A centralized system would impose more quality control, allowing for more internal oversight and accountability.
Public defenders who have shown a substandard performance defending indigent defendants should no longer be employed by the state to do so. Allowing unqualified public defenders to continue sets the stage for future inadequate performances and possible wrongful convictions.
The defense and the prosecution should have an equal and adequate budget to hire experts and other necessary personnel to assist in the preparation of cases. As it is, defense attorneys have an extremely limited budget, far less than prosecutors' huge budgets. On such an unequal playing field, no confidence can be placed on the outcome of court proceedings or verdicts. Furthermore, public defenders should have the same size staff as the district attorneys to ensure that they are not overwhelmed by sheer manpower.
There should be a limit to the number of cases a public defender is allowed to take on at one time. In the Bronx, for example, it is not unusual for a public defender to have 140 cases at the same time. Overburdening a public defender prevents him or her from giving each case the time, preparation and investigation it deserves.
Public defenders should be given pay equal to that of prosecutors.
Indigent defendants should be provided with court-appointed attorneys to handle post-conviction motions so that they can have competent legal representation, rather than trying to represent themselves against trained and seasoned prosecutors. A post-conviction motion differs from an appeal in that the defendant may be seeking to introduce new evidence or new issues of law that could not have been raised on appeal.
Access to DNA testing should always be provided, even in cases where defendants have pled guilty -- there have been 11 instances where an innocent defendant has pled guilty, often as a result of fear of a higher sentence, only to be proven innocent by DNA.
Judges should be given the authority to order crime scene DNA comparisons to DNA databases; currently the law does not explicitly give them that authority, and whether the testing goes forward or not often is up to the discretion of the prosecution. Current law allows judges the authority to order DNA in those cases in which DNA could affect the outcome. It should be that, in any case in which there is testable material, a test should be done.
Prosecutors should not be allowed to explain away a negative DNA test result at a trial by claiming the victim had a consensual sexual encounter, without first proving that such an encounter took place. When a prosecutor argues that a rape or other crime was committed by one person, and then a post-conviction DNA test shows the defendant is innocent, prosecutors should not be allowed to then change their theory on appeal and claim that a crime was committed by two people. Conclusions should be based on what the evidence shows, not by making evidence fit a conclusion.
In many wrongful conviction cases, it is usually discovered that the cleared person's appeals ran out years before. More review is needed to catch mistakes and correct wrongful incarcerations. Courts of appeals should review all cases, as a matter of a defendant's right, as an additional level of review, with the goal of catching more wrongful convictions.
There should be a review apparatus, besides appeals or pardons, for reviewing cases in which a defendant has a strong innocence claim. Appellate review is not enough to protect the innocent, and a governor's pardon occurs within a highly charged political environment. A review should be independent of both the courts and the governor's office, and be staffed by wrongful conviction experts.
An Innocence Commission should be created to study what went wrong in wrongful convictions, so that lessons can be learned and changes adopted to try to prevent future wrongful convictions.
A guilty person on parole currently receives more help than an exoneree, who receives nothing. All wrongfully convicted individuals should be compensated upon discovery that he or she was innocent of the crime.
An immediate sum of $15,000 dollars for each year spent wrongfully incarcerated should immediately be paid to those who have been cleared of a crime. This should be aside from any money awarded as a result of a lawsuit, to meet immediate needs such as housing, cost of living, mental health services, health insurance and education.
Compensation lawsuits should receive fast-track processing in the courts.
Bad case law stating that an exonerated person who has contributed to his or her own wrongful conviction should not be eligible to receive any compensation should be changed. The idea that anybody would intentionally get themselves wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison only to then clear themselves in order to be in position to sue is ridiculous. To deny compensation to anybody who has been wrongfully convicted adds insult to injury.
The Parole Board should not be allowed to deny parole to those who profess their innocence based on the idea that they are not taking responsibility for their crimes or expressing sufficient remorse. These standards do not take into account the possibility -- and reality -- of wrongful convictions. The wrongfully convicted should not be made to stay in prison based upon their protestation of innocence. It is a fact that some wrongfully convicted prisoners have been denied parole after finishing their minimum sentences for these reasons.
Similarly, the Parole Board should not be allowed to deny parole to prisoners based upon their being removed from a sex offender class due to a refusal to admit guilt, because such a practice places the wrongfully convicted in the catch-22 of either falsely admitting guilt to try to regain freedom, or to lose a chance at freedom as the price for maintaining innocence.