News 11.05.09

Three Years Free, After Half His Life in Prison

This week marks the third anniversary of Jeffrey Deskovic's exoneration in New York. Deskovic was just 16 years old when he was arrested for the murder of a classmate, a crime DNA now proves he didn't commit. He served 16 years before advanced DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project helped him finally walk free.

In November, 1989, a 15-year-old girl in Deskovic's high school class went out after school to take pictures for a photography class. She never returned home. When her body was discovered days later, she appeared to have been raped, beaten, and strangled.  Her clothes and cassette player were collected.

Deskovic, then 16 years old, became a suspect because he was late to school the day after the victim disappeared. Police also believed he seemed overly distraught at the victim's death.  

After six hours of intense questioning and three polygraph tests, Deskovic allegedly confessed to committing the crime. According to trial testimony, one officer had been brought to the interrogation specifically to "get the confession."  Deskovic was held in a small room with no lawyer or parent present. He was provided with coffee throughout the day but no food. In between polygraph sessions, detectives interrogated Deskovic.  

The first DNA exoneration in the country had occurred in 1989 and DNA testing had just begun to play a role in criminal cases in the U.S.  Tests were conducted before Deskovic's trial on semen recovered from the victim's body during her autopsy. The results showed that he was not the source of semen collected from the victim's body. Prosecutors improperly explained that the semen may have come from a consensual sex partner, rather than her murderer – even though they never investigated whether she had a consensual sex partner. The trial went forward on the strength of Deskovic's alleged confession.   

In January 2006, the Innocence Project took Deskovic's case. Because the DNA tests that excluded Deskovic before trial were conducted using older technology, the results couldn't be entered in the New York State DNA databank of convicted felons. The Innocence Project sought to retest the evidence using technology that would allow the DNA profile to be compared against the database, and Westchester Country District Attorney Janet DiFiore agreed to the testing.

In September 2006, the DNA profile showed that the semen came from a man named Steven Cunningham, who was in prison for another murder conviction. Deskovic was freed on September 22, and on November 2, he was fully cleared. Cunningham has since confessed to the crime.

In 2007,

the New York Times profiled Deskovic

, who spoke about the difficulties of building a new life after exoneration. Today, he speaks frequently about criminal justice reforms and writes a column for the Westchester Guardian newspaper. Read his columns and contact him

through his website

.


Other Exoneration Anniversaries This Week:


Rolando Cruz

, Illinois (Served 10.5 Years, Exonerated 11/03/95)


David A. Gray

, Illinois, (Served 20 years, Exonerated 11/06/99)


Bernard Webster

, Maryland, (Served 20 years, Exonerated 11/07/02) 

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