Exonerated Man Now Helps Others

Wall Street Journal

By Sean Gardiner

Updated March 12, 2012 10:57 p.m. ET

Before he was exonerated in the rape and murder of a Westchester high-school classmate, Jeffrey Deskovic spent 16 years in prison insisting upon his innocence. Now, with millions of dollars in legal settlement money, he said he plans to aid others who believe they have been unjustly convicted. 

He is set to announce this week the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, a nonprofit he established to work on cases in the New York City area. 

Active in criminal-justice reform and anti-death-penalty movements since his release from prison in 2006, Mr. Deskovic has opened an office on the Upper West Side, hired a small staff and said he would commit $1.5 million over three years to the organization.

"The real measure of somebody is what their actions are, more than talk. Much more than talk," said Mr. Deskovic, 38 years old, whose foundation has been in operation for a few months but expects to announce its opening on Friday. "I'm putting my money where my heart is." 

Experts in wrongful convictions said they were aware of exonerated men who donated to existing organizations but believed Mr. Deskovic was the first freed man to dedicate his own money to founding such a group. 

"A lot of [exonerees] talked about it and said they were going to do it, and then when they got the money, they didn't do it," said Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, said a man exonerated of rape in 2000 started the Life Intervention for Exonerees, which pays for basic necessities after release. "But I don't know of anyone who's doing anything on that scale," Mr. Brooks said. "That's really impressive."

The case that sent Mr. Deskovic to prison as a teenager was a brutal killing in the small upstate city of Peekskill.

In November 1989, the body of 15-year-old Angela Correa was found in a city park two days after she disappeared while taking photographs for a class assignment. She had been raped and murdered. Students at Peekskill High School pointed detectives to then-16-year-old Mr. Deskovic, a social outcast who had been held back his freshman year. 

A report commissioned by current Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore and released in June 2007 called the police probe "a textbook illustration of tunnel vision in action." 

The 2007 report found that the Peekskill police overly relied on an "offender" profile, drawn up at the department's request by the New York Police Department. The profile "proved inaccurate in almost every respect, but it appeared to fit Deskovic, prompting premature focus on him as a prime suspect," the report states.

The Peekskill Police Department declined to comment for this article. A lawsuit Mr. Deskovic brought against the department is still pending, as is one against neighboring Putnam County.

For six weeks, police played a cat-and-mouse game with the lonely and awkward Mr. Deskovic, telling him he was helping solve the crime, he said. After he agreed to take a lie-detector test to prove he wasn't involved in the murder, he was driven an hour away, interrogated for seven hours and told by the polygraph administrator that he was lying, he said. He said he was "emotionally overwhelmed" and falsely confessed. 

It was the only evidence against Mr. Deskovic. A jury found him guilty even though tests on semen recovered from the victim didn't match his.

For years, as DNA testing improved, Mr. Deskovic asked that the sample be run through existing databases. The 2007 report questioned why then-District Attorney Jeanine Pirro "consistently reject[ed]" Mr. Deskovic's application. Ms. Pirro, whose representative didn't return calls for comment Monday, said at the time she didn't recall receiving the requests. 

Mr. Deskovic was released after lawyers with the Innocence Project convinced Ms. Pirro's successor, Ms. DiFiore, to check the DNA, which implicated another convicted rapist. That man subsequently confessed to attacking Angela.

Mr. Deskovic was released at age 32 and said he struggled for years to readjust. 

He has now settled civil cases with Legal Aid, New York state and Westchester County for nearly $9 million total. After taxes and lawyers' fees, he said he still has several million dollars—enough, he said, to live comfortably on the interest.

But the money has made possible something he began contemplating soon after his release: creating his own foundation. At first he worked with the Innocence Project. But despite his gratitude to that group, he said he clashed with people there. 

Stephen Saloom, policy director of the Innocence Project, acknowledged there were differences. "But we completely wish him nothing but the best and we're glad he's starting his own organization to do things they way he wants," Mr. Saloom said.

Mr. Deskovic and Richard Blassberg, a former newspaper editor who became the nonprofit's projects manager, struck a partnership with John Jay College of Criminal Justice and have signed up board members.

Its mission is fourfold: to continue public awareness work about wrongful convictions, push for legislative reforms, help exonerated people ease back into society and, in what Mr. Deskovic called the "ultimate goal," free unjustly convicted prisoners. His website advises potential clients, which are limited now to cases prosecuted within a 50-mile radius of Manhattan, that the foundation accepts "only cases in which there is a claim of actual innocence."

They have four cases: two murders, a robbery and an assault with a deadly weapon. One of those cases involves the Peekskill Police Department.

Though the foundation is his "dream," Mr. Deskovic insisted he won't go broke funding it. He said if the foundation isn't at least 70% to 80% self-sufficient after three years, he will consider disbanding it. But one outcome may override that plan. 

"If we get one person out or we're close to it then I would still feel satisfied," he said. "I mean, there's no words for that, there's no words if we're about to free somebody. Then it would be worth it."