Thursday, January 24, 2008

Speaking With Promising Youngsters In Fort Apache, The South Bronx

By Jeff Deskovic

On Jan 12, I had an opportunity to go to a very special school in the South Bronx, The Bronx Charter School for the Arts. The school is unique because the ninth and tenth graders are oriented toward learning about wrongful convictions and police brutality. Considering
my advocacy, working against wrongful convictions, it was only natural that they might wish to hear from me. I was accompanying by one of my attorneys, Nick Brustin, who is involved with the day-to-day work of my numerous lawsuits against those who played a role in
the intentional sending of a 16-year-old boy to prison for 16 years, for a crime that they knew he was innocent of. I was particularly impressed with the fact that the students were so interested that they were willing to come to school on Saturday.

The format was that I would first speak to the staff and a few select senior students in a group of about ten, before going on to speak to the larger class. Rather than speak from a podium and have the audience face me, we instead decided to sit in a circle, and I made my delivery more informally, allowing them to interrupt at any time if they needed clarification. Nonetheless, despite this freedom, as I told my tale of being wrongfully convicted at 16; being coerced into falsely confessing while being fed details in the course of the interrogation; having other evidence fabricated by misconduct on the part of the prosecution and virtually every arm of law enforcement involved in my case; the failure of my lawyer to render competent counsel, and being successfully opposed in all of my appeals by Jeanine Pirro, in my attempt to get more sophisticated DNA testing coupled with the rubber stamp denials by all of the appeals courts all the way through the entire judicial system,
left them so shocked and appalled that very few questions were asked until I was finished.

One of the adults in the circle asked me, “Whatever happened to the detectives that coerced you;” Detectives Mc-Intyre, Levine, the polygrapher Daniel Stephens, and Lt. Tumulo, and others. I explained that McIntyre and Levine had retired; that Stephens now worked
as a physician’s assistant in Brewster, and Tumulo was now the Chief of Police in Peekskill. That last fact brought remarks of outrage and concern that he could again be involved in something like that.

As is my custom, I refrained from speculating on the subject, attempting to remain above the fray and instead simply provided the facts, allowing my audience to form whatever conclusions they would.

I shared with them a bit of my prison experience, my tireless fight to prove my innocence through every conceivable method, and
the flukish way that I had come to be exonerated:

By being lucky enough to have had people lobbying The Innocence Project to take my case; Claudia Whitman - an amateur
investigator who works against the death penalty on a federal level, from outside the organization, and case intake worker Maggie Taylor from within. I explained that Jeanine Pirro was no longer in of-fice and that Janet DiFiore cooperated with the testing; that the FBI had preserved the DNA sample, and that Steven Cunningham’s DNA just happened to have been in the databank by virtue of his having committed an unrelated crime, the murder of school teacher Pat Morrison in Peekskill.

I pointed out the fact that the failure of any of those factors could have very easily led to my remaining in prison, and quite possibly dying in there, despite my efforts. I further explained that my appeals had been exhausted in 2001, and with that I no longer had legal representation. I described how all of my letters, begging for help, had fallen on deaf ears and did not result in any assistance until approximately May of 2006 when The Innocence Project took my case. Finally, I told of the Parole Board slamming shut my chance of being released on parole after I had served the sentence minimum of 15 years, despite having a good disciplinary record, a great educational record, and a letter from a prison employee recommending that I be released. When I started speaking about reforms is when the questions began to pick up. The youngsters were quite surprised to learn about the true state of the criminal justice system and how there are so many pitfalls which can lead to wrongful convictions, and just how many reforms will be needed to close them them up. They didn’t know that false confessions had led to 25% of
the now 211 DNA exonerations, or that shocking police tactics continue to be allowed; tactics such as interrogations lasting for hours, lying to suspects claiming to have nonexistent evidence; false promises, along with the questioning of mentally ill and developmentally disabled people without the presence of a lawyer. They were unaware of the fact that, at 16 years of age, a suspect is considered to be an adult, capable of understanding and waiving his or her rights; nor that eyewitness misidentifi-cation has caused 75% of the 211 DNA exposed
wrongful convictions.

Additionally, they were surprised to learn that police and prosecutors sometimes intentionally withhold evidence from the defense and/or coerce witnesses; that public defenders are often inadequate and are frequently given case loads of 150 defendants while working with a very small budget and staff as opposed to prosecutors who enjoy huge budgets and staff and earn significantly more.

I explained that junk science leads to wrongful convictions by providing faulty corroborative evidence and that there is no standardized evidence preservation system so that those who are wrongfully convicted must first hope that the relevant evidence has not been destroyed or lost. I went on to point out that those facing charges will sometimes falsely incriminate the innocent in order to get a lighter sentence, and
that this factor alone caused 15 percent of the convictions reversed by DNA. They agreed with me that reforms addressing all of these issues should be enacted, along with the criminal prosecution of police and prosecuters who intentionally withhold evidence. They understood how such a flawed system could very easily lead to the execution of someone who was innocent. They complemented me on my work, and said they would ask their regular schools to invite me to come to give a presentation.

The audience response that really shook me to my core was when a student, who was heading to college, informed me, based upon my story, that she would be going to law school, after she graduated, for the purpose of working to undo wrongful convictions. Hearing that was a profound moment for me; to think that I might have helped shape someone’s life like that, and possibly set in motion a future lawyer who could undo someone else’s wrongful conviction. I went on to share my story with the larger group of students, approximately 40, along with about 5 adults. At that point the question was asked, several times, whether I was angry about what happened to me. It seemed to shake the
kids that I was not angry because, as I explained, to feel anger would be to give the wrongful actors the rest of my life. I explained that I am determined to live the most meaningful life possible, and that the energy that I feel fuels my drive to work against wrongful convictions by spreading awareness about it through presentations as well as media interviews and the lobbying of legislators for reforms. I further shared my own quest to become a lawyer to exonerate others who have been wrongfully convicted, and to establish my own ‘innocence project’.

I explained, on a personal level, that I really believe a big reason why I can remain sane now is due to the fact that I am not angry, and that if I were, I would lose all rhyme and reason and, with it, my mind. As the session came to a close, the moderator asked me for some concrete things that the students might do to help in the fight against wrongful convictions.

I answered that they could study wrongful convictions, spread the information by talking with their friends and parents; ask their high
schools, colleges, churches, and community organizations to consider the problem and to possibly permit me to speak. I suggested that when they got older they might call their elected of-ficials and insist they enact reforms and keep the death penalty out of New York and to warn those officials that if they did not take such action they and their family and friends would be voting against them. Finally I suggested that
they could contribute financially to The Innocence Project and other organizations that are fighting on behalf of wrongfully convicted individuals, and that they might take a personal role in all of this should they decide to become lawyers.

After I left the school, I toured the Hunts Point area of the Bronx and the 41st Precinct, where the school is located ultimately driving up to Arthur Avenue for lunch in Little Italy. I reflected on the wonderful school I had visited and thought how wonderful it would be if more schools would educate their students on this ultra important topic.

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