Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jeffrey Deskovic.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jeff Deskovic

Speaking At Harvard

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of teaching students on the subject of wrongful convictions at Harvard University Law School and several other Harvard schools. The events were the first ones put together by the student group Harvard Divinity School Innocence Project Engagement Group.

In February 2007 I was visiting The Innocence Project in New York City. After making the rounds to see familiar faces, I went to their second floor, which contains their Policy Department which focuses on legislative reform. At that time, I unexpectedly met Mike Klinger.

Klinger had just began working with the Innocence Project as a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs in New York City. He was drawn to the Intelligence Project’s criminal justice reform work, finding it in alignment with his vocational interests, intellectual passions, and spiritual curiosities.

Upon completion of his Coro experience, Klinger began working full-time in the Policy Department, and has been engaged with the work ever since. We hit it off, and he requested a meeting with me to discuss college education in prison.

From our initial meeting, Klinger and I became friends and periodically would get together to socialize. He attended several of my speaking events.

About eight months ago, he was admitted to the Harvard Divinity School to pursue a Masters Degree. Although this required him to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, he continues to work for The Innocence Project as a Policy Consultant. His primary function involves supporting the administration of the Eyewitness Identification Reform Litigation Network, which consists of a group of attorneys working to:

1) reduce wrongful convictions by strengthening defense strategies focused on suppressing problematic identifications;

2) enacting Eyewitness Identification policy reforms nationwide through both litigation and legislative channels.

His current focus on this project is building infrastructure and capacity for the network through grassroots Speaking At Harvard
organizing and implementation of web technologies.

Despite the physical distance, Klinger and I have maintained our friendship by phone. One night I was outside on Mercy College campus. He called me and said that he wanted to form a student group for the purpose of raising awareness about the problem of
wrongful convictions.

He knew that various student organizations in the past at other schools had sponsored my events, and he told me he wanted to bring me to Harvard. About six months later, he contacted me and said that he was ready to go. On April 14, 2009 I arrived at Harvard to speak about wrongful convictions.

In order to further publicize the event, I accompanied Mike to a class that he was attending pertaining to community organizing, where the professor was nice enough to permit me to give a short two minute blurb about the upcoming event the next night.

Following that, we went to a function called “The Community Tea.” The Harvard website defines the tea as follows: “Each week during the fall and spring terms, the Office of Student Life hosts a community tea, a chance for students, faculty, and staff to engage in conversation over a cup of tea or punch. A table of goodies is spread with tea sandwiches, fruit, and sweets. It is a time to relax, refuel, and connect with friends.”

Following several announcements about various upcoming events, I again referenced the upcoming event the next night.

HDS Innocence Project

The HDS Innocence Project Engagement Group describes itself as “Offering students the opportunity to participate in the DNA-driven criminal justice reform movement through supportive political action and public education initiatives. Through a range of activities, students will have the opportunity to explore interrelated issues including, but not limited to: religious life in prison, capital punishment, prisoner reentry, forensic science, and peace and reconciliation processes. There will be several opportunities to meet with DNA exonerees so that we may bear witness to their suffering, and engage with them in dialogue to explore ways in which we as a community of diverse spiritual leaders of all faiths can perhaps assist in facilitating their healing.”

Contacted by The Guardian in connection with this article, Mike Klinger gave the following statement: “I founded the HDS Innocence Project Engagement Group with a vision of raising awareness amongst the spiritual leadership of tomorrow of the causes and consequences of wrongful convictions. My hope is to empower this leadership community with the awareness and advocacy skills required to help bring about a more just, accurate criminal justice system, which currently impacts every religious and spiritual community across the country.”

The first event was on Wednesday, April 15 at 8:20 AM at Harvard Law School, in the “Evidence” class taught by Prof. Bruce Hay. There were 80 students in the class. Prof. Hay had assisted in obtaining funding to cover the travel costs for the event. The class had been prepped on my case, and therefore I only spoke for about ten minutes.

I was a bit nervous starting out, but Prof. Hay asked me a few questions which helped me to relax, and then I got into a rhythm.

Following those ten minutes, however the rest of the period was spent with the students asking me questions regarding the legal aspects of my case, and also about wrongful convictions in general.

There were a few questions which required me to give information about a some other wrongful conviction cases as well. At times, Prof. Hay requested that I address different subjects.

The second event, out of all of the events that I participated in, was the main one since it was held in an auditorium and was open to students in all of the Harvard schools. This event began at 6pm and ran for about two hours at the Harvard Divinity School.

It was attended by students from Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Law School, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard’s School of Design, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and Harvard’s Extension School.

The HDS Innocence Project designed a poster to advertise the event. The poster’s headlines read “Innocence Project Engagement Group Presents… Jeff Deskovic: 16 Years of Wrongful Incarceration.”

In further elaboration of the event, the poster stated that I would speak about my wrongful conviction, time in prison, life post exoneration, and being involved in efforts to raise public awareness and bring about legislative changes.

I was introduced by Kerry Maloney. She spoke briefly about the importance of liberation. Then Mike Klinger was called to the podium. He thanked Maloney for her assistance, and then promptly
called me to the podium to speak.

Before launching into the presentation, I commented on how surreal it was to be at as a prestigious a school as Harvard whereas just a short two and a half years earlier I was in a prison cell with the weight of a life sentence on me.

I also reflected about how eight months ago Mike had called me and expressed interest in putting together some events at Harvard, and now it had come true. I then thanked him as well as all of the different people and groups that had helped but whose names were too numerous for me to remember, and then launched into the presentation.

I began by explaining how murders were rare in the small city of Peekskill, and how ultimately the police coerced a false confession out of me, and how I was convicted despite a negative DNA test, based upon prosecutor George Bolen’s concocting a baseless story that the 15 year old victim, who was an immigrant, had engaged in a consensual sexual encounter close enough to her murder and rape so as to exp lain away the negative DNA test, without ever attempting to prove that.

I spoke a little bit about my prison experience, including the violence in prison, disciplinary sanctions being imposed at various instances including in response to my defending myself which was thought of as “fighting”, including taking limited showers and being sent less food, including, at times, food that was old.

I spoke about trying to prevent the time in prison from being a total waste by earning an A.S. Degree and completing one year of further study towards a B.A. before Gov. Pataki eliminated funding for college education of prisoners.

I also having to choose between seeing my grandmother on her death bed, alive but comatose, or waiting till she passed away and then attending the religious service, as well as the mistreatment and humiliation I endured in the process.

Then I walked students through the appeals process and how then-Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro fought all seven of my appeals, including blocking me from getting more sophisticated DNA testing. I mentioned the letter writing campaign that I started, sending letters to individuals, and organizations, including churches and other faith-based organizations, big law firms, reporters, and not-for-profit
organizations that help clear wrongfully convicted prisoners but who don’t have enough resources to take all the meritorious cases that come their way.

I explained how when I ultimately obtained help from The Innocence Project, by which time Pirro was no longer in office, the Westchester District Attorney allowed further DNA testing, which matched the real perpetrator, one Steven Cunningham, who killed school teacher Pat Morrison three and a half years after he killed the victim for which I was incarcerated.

I then spoke about life post-release and it’s multi-faceted difficulties, including having to learn new technology, still having a hard time breaking in socially, and being released from prison with nothing and consequently struggling financially. I also mentioned becoming an advocate to make the criminal justice system more accurate and to raise awareness about the deficiencies in the system which make it possible for innocent
people to be wrongfully convicted, and that I engaged in these activities by speaking, writing, giving print, radio, and television interviews, lobbying, and testifying at legislative hearings.

I then provided the students with some ideas as to how they might get involved by learning more about the causes of wrongful convictions and the reforms needed and then sharing that information with friends and family, calling their representatives and encouraging them to pass laws implementing those reforms.

I said they could join Mike’s group. I then mentioned different ways that they could embark on careers that assisted the movement: becoming attorney’s who work on wrongful conviction cases, either working in the media department at organizations that work on wrongful conviction cases or being a reporter who writes articles, at least occasionally, on the subject; the mental health fields via counseling and social worker, paralegal, or simply going into law enforcement.

I made them understand that they could be that honest police officer who doesn’t cut corners nor tries to coerce suspects or allow it, being careful that innocent people are not arrested, and not participating in the blue wall of silence.

I said they could be a prosecutor who plays it by the book, doesn’t withhold exculpatory evidence, engage in prosecutorial misconduct or look the other way while it is happening.

Mike Klinger thanked Life Together, which is the Harvard Divinity’s School student body government, and the Office Of Student Life for providing funding for the event. Mike then thanked Kerry Maloney, HDS Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, Chris Scheller, President, HDS Zen Peacemaker Order, a student organization, Zachary Ugolnik, President of the HDS Prison Education Project, a student organization, and Marcus McCullough, President of the HDS Harambee, another student organization, who assisted him non-monetarily in bringing the event together.

He then mentioned my emerging from my ordeal to try to make a difference, preventing this from happening to others. He then invited the students to get involved in the HDS Innocence Project Engagement Group, which planned to get involved in battling
against wrongful convictions.

A question and answer session then began. Some of the more memorable questions which elicited responses from me pertained to the prison industrial complex, and how I would like to assist prison reform groups who seek more humane prison conditions.

I also fielded some questions that brought out information I had not been able to include during the lecture phase pertaining to the dilemma of needing to take the sex offender program to have any chance of making parole but how that would mean admitting guilt and giving details, and to do so verbally and in writing to the staff and to the other prisoners in the program.

After much soul-searching, I decided that I could not bring myself to say I committed something that I had not, even if it would cost me my freedom. I then segued off of that question to mention how the Parole Board denied me release even though it acknowledged that I had a good disciplinary record and had a good educational record, and, how it was in the habit of rubber stamp denying parole applications even to people who could demonstrate that if they were released they would not be arrested again.

After the presentation I was pleased to meet Gretchen Bennett, who was with the New England Innocence Project, and a paralegal who worked with her. I also did the usual ‘meet and greet’ with the audience members. At the same time, some of the students signed up to participate in the HDS Innocence Project Engagement Group. Then Mike and I headed to the third event.

The third event ran a little bit more than an hour at the Harvard Extension School, in a classroom that physically was in the Harvard Law School, called “Evidence, Law, and Reason.” This class was also taught by Prof. Hay. Some 75 students were in attendance.

As with the first event, I spoke for about 10 minutes, and then the class started asking me a lot of questions, with Prof.
Hay occasionally directing that different subjects be addressed.

One of the more meaningful exchanges included a student commenting how there seemed to be a lot of public apathy regarding wrongful convictions. He also noted how one pirate attack on the U.S. has prompted talk of war but how in contrast 235 wrongful convictions has not similarly gotten the public demanding that action be taken.

Another meaningful exchange occurred when the a student mentioned the need for compensation in every state, and how this could potentially serve as a deterrent to future prosecutorial misconduct.

I commented how wrongful convictions were still going on even in those states with compensation, and how instead incarcerative penalties were needed for rogue prosecutors, as well as the ability to sue them personally. Much of the audience was in agreement.

I enjoyed visiting Mike after not seeing him for 8 months. We caught up with what we had been doing, played some chess. I had a chance to see some of the town of Cambridge. In my quest to try new things, I sampled an exotically named tea which was described as being the “champagne of tea.”

The student campus seemed alive with many extra curricular events, and the students were very friendly. One of them joined Mike and me at a restaurant.

Speaking at Harvard was a great experience. There was a part of me that was happy to potentially touch many students. One clear issue in the struggle in Massachusetts is that there is currently no post-conviction DNA law on the books giving prisoners the right to DNA Testing.

I think that other schools should be having student groups revolving around the issue of wrongful convictions, as it would further raise awareness and enable young adults to take action.

I really enjoyed sitting in on the community organizing class, and I think that is the next natural step in my advocacy work. As an individual, we are largely powerless. As a whole, we have the collective power of many, the energy, abilities, and most importantly, the votes.

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