Jeffrey Deskovic Goes Back To Prison
By Jeff Deskovic
As most readers know, I was released from prison about 15 months ago after a 16-year prison term for a crime which DNA proved that I was innocent of. Much of my time since then has been spent raising public awareness of the problem of wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct, and systemic failures and cracks which lead innocent people to be wrongfully convicted. I have attempted to accomplish this by
giving lectures at colleges, high schools, churches, and other community organizations, and also by giving many television, radio, and print interviews. Periodically, I go to Albany in an attempt to lobby lawmakers to enact reforms that would address these issues,
and I have also testified at legislative hearings when they solicit public comment on bills containing reforms.
All of this is a part of my new-found mission in life battling against wrongful convictions in order to prevent others from suffering the same fate that I did. Recently, I went to one of the state prisons in order to visit an inmate who was alleging actual innocence, as a natural extension of that mission. I had come into receipt of a correspondence from an inmate who was alleging actual innocence. It was a bit
haunting reading through the letter in that it was reminiscent of the uncountable letters that I had written to many places desperately seeking help. At the same time, I was aware that there are some prisoners who will falsely allege innocence thus tying up precious limited
resources that would be better used looking into and working on actual wrongful conviction cases.
I attempted to remain even keeled, trying not to come to any conclusions. Yet, the prisoner had mentioned enough things in his letter to pique my interest so that I decided it warranted further investigation. I made arrangements to visit him together with the editor of The Guardian, Richard Blassberg. I initially had trepidations pondering my going back into prison; but the realization that my future work, hopefully as an attorney for the wrongfully convicted, will obviously require me to visit prisoners, pushed me over the hump. Why not get used to
One of the ways that I attempt to catch up to speed on things in the world is by doing them with someone alongside me, walking me through it. Having done that, I feel con- dent about the future, knowing that I had done it before. I decided to apply this principle to my going to a prison. Being accompanied by Richard would both serve as a type of training so that I could go to prisons in the future by myself, as well as serve as a comfort to have him there in case I might have suffered some anxiety. Despite having arrived at that intellectual conclusion, however, as the day set aside for the visit drew closer, it seemed more and more incredible that I would actually go into a prison. After all,
I had never been inside a prison before since having been released.
As a coping strategy, I tried to put it out of my head, a technique that became harder as the day drew nearer. Deep into the night before my visit, the thought made its way to the forefront of my mind. All kinds of worries and thoughts occurred to me, yet I knew that this was
an inevitable rite of passage. Thus I never thought about cancelling.
The thought of “What am I going to do, how am I going to handle this?” did, in fact, repeatedly cross my mind. On that day I woke up, having limited time to shower and dress, so I simply didn’t have the opportunity to think about it that morning. I had decided that I would wear a suit, as a psychological tactic for countering my reservations. A suit often serves as a reminder to me that my mission in general is serious and important, and that I have a moral responsibility to work against wrongful convictions. I felt bolstered by the knowledge that I had the confidence, trust, and support of many people in my effort. As we drove closer to the facility my confidence grew as I internalized all that wearing the suit represented to me.
I engaged in conversation about recent political happenings and other miscellaneous things. As we entered the neighborhood
of the prison, looking for its entrance, it struck me how weird it was that there were houses near the facility, people waiting at bus stops, others walking and driving, going to work and school, and, in general, just living their lives as if nothing was wrong, as if there
wasn’t something evil going on in their midst at the prison; as if there weren’t some incarcerated wrongfully, and others serving excessive sentences; still others whose rights had been violated by the courts and or an assorted possibility of law enforcement personnel.
Aside from all of these matters and issues regarding who was in the prison and for how long, the question of mistreatment within the prison as basic human dignity, respect, constitutional rights, human rights, went ignored, trampled on, and seen as unwarranted extravagance as a matter of due course.
It seemed bizarre that people could just live and act normally as if none of the above-mentioned were true, as in complete opposition to the credo espoused by Dr. King, ‘injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.’ Yet, as my travel companion pointed out, the people were
oblivious to all of these things. As I walked about the prison grounds another thought went through my mind. The prison building served as a portal to another world, as if the two different worlds ran parallel to each other and only at certain points, such as the front door of a prison or a courtroom, were there portals from one world to another, from one reality to another. As we went through the visitor processing center, filling out various paperwork and supplying various information, the thought ran through my mind that my mother, and occasionally other relatives, went through this process in order to visit me. I felt funny witnessing and experiencing this side of prison which I had never been exposed to before. And the process was completed fairly quickly, I remember thinking that it was not so bad, that I could do that again by myself. I suppose that was because visitor harassment, which had been a usual tactic engaged in by various correction officers at many of
the prisons in order to discourage visitors from coming to see prisoners, such as by requiring them to remove clothing items, and delaying the processing, were not being employed for some reason that day. As many family and friends of inmates know only too well, usually they
are not called until after the visitor is in the waiting area, and a half hour, to several hours, often go by before a prisoner is alerted of the visit and allowed into the room. It is but one of many methods that correction officers and staff employ to discourage visitors from returning.
For whatever reason, again, good fortune was ours and, when we walked into the room, I was quite surprised to see the inmate waiting at the correction officer’s desk.
He instantly recognized me, shook my hand and greeted me. On the way to the table, a memory came to mind of how, when I used to receive a visit, I would be given something to drink from the vending machines in the room, and so I immediately asked if he wanted a cup of coffee and got him one. Returning to the table, I made it clear up front that I was not an attorney and that I could therefore offer him no legal advice. I explained that both The Guardian and I had been receiving many letters from prisoners since I had been cleared and writing for the newspaper. I indicated that many individuals claiming to be innocent were writing and asking for help of whatever nature could be provided.
Having been on the other end of such letters, I knew what it was like to write for help and receive no responses. I explained that I therefore had decided that I would start looking into these cases to check into the veracity of the claims, and acknowledging that visitation and interviewing would be a necessary part of that process. I attempted to make it clear that I would not simply be taking the word of people claiming innocence, and that I would come to my own conclusions, attempting to operate in an unbiased and objective manner without predetermination about what my conclusions would be.
Furthermore, even if I were convinced of someone’s innocence, or that reasonable doubt existed, or if violations of rights had occurred, the only help that I could, in my life, be able to offer, was to lend a sympathetic ear, offering hope as a living example that exoneration was possible and that efforts to achieve that goal should not be abandoned by the truly innocent. Beyond that, if after reading documentation
and obtaining corroboration of claims, I was convinced of innocence, I determined that I would write about the case in The Guardian, which hopefully would inspire people who had truthful information about the case to come forward.
Incidental to my conclusions, if a case could serve as an example of why various reforms were needed to prevent wrongful convictions and prosecutorial misconduct, I would reference them in my lobbying attempts and when testifying at legislative hearings. I could neither promise nor commit to anything beyond that. Speaking with the inmate, I informed him that his was the first case that I was checking out. I interviewed him at length to learn more about his circumstances and anything that he could add beyond what was already part of the record. In more than two and a half hours together, I learned a variety of things from him that further piqued my interest. I learned, for example, that his conviction was predicated upon misidentification, in a photo array from which he was selected by the victim that was unduly suggestive, in that he was the only person in the photos whose eyes were blackened.
He said that he had, himself, been assault by a bunch of people the night he was arrested; was full of his own blood, and had called people he knew to come and help him and drive him home, waiting near the scene for them to arrive. However, before help arrived, the police came and arrested him. He told us that the prosecution theory was that after being assaulted by a group he obtained a knife and tried to retaliate against an attacker, but that a third party inserted himself between him and the intended victim, and that he stabbed that third party several times.
What further grabbed my interest was that, despite supposedly stabbing this third party multiple times, DNA testing of his own clothing had revealed that he did not have the blood of anyone other than himself on his clothes. As a result, to counter the contrary DNA evidence, the prosecution claimed that the alleged victim merely bled on the inside and that was why there was no blood on the accused. That theory defies all common sense. The inmate mentioned that the authorities believed he had witnessed a crime several years earlier that he actually
had not, and that he would not point the finger at another innocent person that they were insisting he identify. His wrongful arrest and conviction, he was convinced, were in retaliation for having been “an uncooperative witness.” He claimed to have some documentation of
that fact and promised to show it to me at some later date.
Given the charges for which he was convicted, his sentence was so excessive as to suggest that there was a lot more to his case than meets the eye. Individuals convicted of murder were not given as much prison time as he. He spoke of numerous Brady violations and advised us that he had been seeking documents in an effort to turn up leads which, when followed, could turn up evidence of his innocence. It
was clear from documents that I had already looked at prior to visiting him, that whatever the truth of his case turned out to be with regard to any other issue, I was positive that the withholding of information was occurring.
As the time drew near to leave, I remembered the schedule that all of the prisons run on, and realized that by the time our inmate left the visiting area, it would be questionable whether he would’ve have missed the chow run. I did not want him to have to have missed lunch as the price for having visited me and spoken about his case. At the same time, I remembered what it was like to be in prison. Prison is an unnatural place whose everyday reality could never really be understood by anybody other than someone who has either been in, or at the very least known someone who had been in and therefore had a little bit closer vantage point.
Life in a prison consists of everything being essentially reduced to its basest level and extreme survival mode such that courtesy, consideration, and things that should go without saying often are not the reality. That being said, when I was a prisoner, I often looked forward to visits, not simply to see a familiar face, or to experience precious contact with the outside, but I also looking forward to eating
vending machine food. It was not that the items were very good, but that they were a lot better than what we got to eat as inmates.
In a karmic kind of way, I felt that what goes around comes around, and it was now my turn to provide something to eat to someone who was less fortunate than I currently was, even as I was the recipient when I was incarcerated. Perhaps realizing that I am not fully
established financially, he initially didn’t want me to purchase him anything. Realizing that the few dollars that it would
cost me would neither make me or break me. However, because I insisted, he eventually agreed.
Having left the table, I was now standing at the microwave, and I found myself reflecting that I had much verifi-cation to do with regard to his case. He appeared to be innocent, and again, re-flecting on what my own situation had been, I nearly came to tears. As we were leaving, the more steps that I took, the weirder it felt leaving, as if I was in some parallel universe where I was miscast as the person who could leave
the prison as opposed to the one who had to stay as the visitor left. As we walked to the door, the prisoner gave me a symbolic thank you on behalf of the prisoners in the system, for the efforts that I have been undertaking in lobbying lawmakers. His words touched me, and were a powerful reminder to me that my present course of action is the right one. He informed me that many who are still inside were aware of my experiences and have been reading my articles. I knew that I was read in some facilities, but I had no idea that it was as widespread as he described.
Taking the last few steps out of the prison, I felt pangs of frustration that I was not able to take him with me and spontaneously
correct the wrong that I felt had been visited upon him. Still, I had yet to investigate and come to any final conclusions, but his case had all of the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction and everything he reported seemed very plausible. I quickly reflected that the family and friends of wrongfully convicted prisoners, including at one time my own mother, must have felt something similar. In a small way, kind of reminiscent
of General MacArthur’s famous “I will return”, I then silently renewed my vow that I would return to prison, not only to merely hear and investigate the stories of others, alleging actual innocence, but, more importantly, taking action that might, in fact, result in the exoneration
of some prisoners and the pleasure of taking them out of prison with me.