When the verdict came in … I was stunned. I thought I’d heard wrong … The idea that they could have found me guilty was unfathomable. I thought that only guilty people were convicted… I thought my life was over…”


I would say I had a very enjoyable childhood. I grew up in an apartment complex in Peekskill, NY, in a middle class neighborhood that was very ethnically diverse in it’s make up. We did things that kids do. We’d play stickball, kickball, tackle football. We used to swim and ride bikes. I was very involved and a very athletic kid. But, when I got to high school, that was a different story. There were a lot of kids there that I really wasn’t familiar with, and I didn’t quite fit in. Consequently, I was kind of quiet and withdrawn socially. In 1990 I was sixteen years old, and a sophomore at Peekskill High School. That year a freshman girl at my school, who I barely knew, was found murdered and raped. The police interviewed a lot of students at school, and some of them told the police that they want to talk to me, because I seemed strange to them. This is what the police said put me on their radar. The other factor was they said I seemed overly upset at the victim having been murdered. And that is how I became the target of the police’s investigation.


For about six weeks the police would pretend like they needed my help to solve the crime, but then they would also talk to me as a suspect. The police got me to agree to take a lie detector test by telling me there was some new information they wanted to share with me which would enable me to be even more helpful to them, but that I would first have to pass the lie detector. So the next day, rather than go to high school, I went to the police station for the test. My mother thought that I was in school and therefore did not call around looking for me. I had heard through the rumor that others had taken a lie detector at the Peekskill Police Station. But instead they drove me to another town about forty minutes away by car, which meant I could not leave on my own; I was dependent on the police. They interrogated me for six and a half to seven hours. They broke me down to the point that I actually falsely confessed to this horrible crime. By the end of that experience at the police station I was curled up in a fetal position crying uncontrollably, overwhelmed both emotionally and psychologically. I was arrested that night, and brought to the county jail, where I was held for about thirty-five days before I was able to be bailed out. I felt like my life was over.

I got severely depressed, and I made a suicide attempt. I took an entire bottle of extra strength Tylenol, and, ultimately, was rushed to the hospital where they pumped my stomach. I was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital for about six months after that. Right around the time that I was released from that facility the DNA results came in from the FBI lab. The lab’s results showed that the seminal fluid found at the crime scene did not come from me. But, instead of re-opening the case, and acknowledging that they had made a mistake, they continued to prosecute, full speed ahead. The prosecutors explained away the DNA, claiming that it was not evidence of my innocence, but, rather, just a sample from another person that she had slept with before her death.

My public defender never explained to the jury the significance of this scientific evidence-the DNA not matching me- or use it to argue that it proved that the so-called “confession” was coerced and false. He didn’t interview or call as a witness my alibi, or allow me to testify. He didn’t put on a defense. On the day of the jury verdict the jurors came into the room, and I remembered that I had been told, while I was in the county jail, that when they walked in, to try to make eye contact with them, and if they are looking at you and smiling, that means that they found you innocent. But, if they are looking away, and they look serious, then that means that they voted to find you guilty. Not one of them would make eye contact with me.



I had been found guilty of a murder and rape which I was innocent of. I was stunned. The idea that I could be found guilty of a crime I was innocent of never crossed my mind. I begged the judge, at my sentencing, to overturn the verdict. I referenced the DNA support of my innocence, and he actually told me, on the record, “Maybe you are innocent,” basically admitting that there were doubts in the case. But, instead of overturning the jury’s verdict he sentenced me to fifteen to life, which led to me being sent to a men’s maximum security prison. I was seventeen years old.


I thought that my life was over. I was openly contemplating committing suicide on a daily basis. That lasted for the first three or four months, and I spent that time with a correction officer sitting outside of my cell door. There was really nothing to do, I didn’t have any books, nothing to do but stare at the wall. They weren’t allowing me to go to recreation because they considered me a suicide threat, which, really, I was. I finally reached a point, eventually, where I felt like there was a necessity to believe that things were going to get better for me. I started going to the law library to learn the law. I had to fight off the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that would come through my mind here and there.

My worst experience, while I was in prison, was the decision coming down from the federal court telling me that because of a miscommunication between my new lawyer and a court clerk, concerning the timing of filing procedures, my case was being dismissed. I had thought that because I had a paid lawyer this time, and I was in federal court, away from the state system, that things would be different. But they were not. The court ruled that my being late was more important than my innocence argument. That meant that before I could get the merits of my case decided, I would need to get that procedural ruling against me overturned. I appealed the decision all the way up to the Supreme Court who, ultimately, declined to permit my appeal. That was seven appeals lost. The only way back into court once your appeals are exhausted is for there to either be a retroactive change in the law, or you have to find some new evidence that wasn’t known before.


Neither I, nor my family, had any money to hire another lawyer, so I started writing letters. I wrote four years worth of letters to large law firms, to reporters, to faith-based institutions. ‘I’m innocent. There’s a negative DNA test result. I need help.’ I rarely got letters back. I wound up in touch with an investigator in Colorado through a publishing company that I had written to. She said, “Look, I’m too far away to help you. But I’ll try to network you to the direct legal help that you need.” She suggested that I write to The Innocence Project, who I had applied to earlier into my sentence, with no success. This investigator got some respected legal entities to lobby from outside of the organization, and, finally, The Innocence Project agreed to take on my case. Getting their legal representation was so important. We got really lucky with further DNA testing, which not only reaffirmed my innocence, but it also identified the actual perpetrator, whose DNA was in the database because he had killed a second victim three and a half years after killing the victim in my case.

So, on September 20th, 2016, after sixteen years in prison, my conviction was overturned, and I was released. All of the charges against me were dismissed on actual innocence grounds, I can vividly remember, when I went outside that first time, the sun was out, the sky was blue, and all I could hear was clapping and cheering. I had survived.


It was very hard, trying to put my life back together. For a number of years I met with mental health professionals, learning to cope with the after-effects of my experience, and trying to re-adjust to being free. The culture was different. Neighborhoods didn’t look the same. I had lost track with all of my former friends. I was released when I was thirty-two, but I still felt like I was seventeen. I still wanted to do all the things that teenagers and young adults do, but people my age had gone through those stages already.

It was very hard for me to relate. Also, I wasn’t able to find gainful employment because I had no work history, I didn’t understand the new technology, and employers had no patience for on-the-job training. It was very difficult for those first five years after my exoneration until I was financially compensated. I nearly ended up in a homeless shelter. Amazingly, Mercy College offered me a scholarship to complete my bachelors degree, and they allowed me to live on campus, which helped to keep me out of the shelters.

When I left the courthouse, the day I was released, I had done an off-the-cuff two-hour presentation in front of the news media and, it was in that moment, that I realized that I could be a part of the innocence movement without necessarily being an attorney. I embarked on my advocacy career with speaking engagements, writing articles, media interviews, meeting with elected officials, and going to hearings. After about five years of doing that, and getting my bachelors degree from Mercy, I obtained my masters from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with a thesis on wrongful conviction cause and reforms. I received my compensation I used some of it to start my non-profit, the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, whose purpose is to free wrongfully convicted people and to prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the first place. In our five and a half years of existence, we’ve freed seven wrongfully convicted people and helped change laws pertaining to videotaping interrogations, identification reform, and together with other advocates and advocacy organizations in the It Can Happen To You coalition, led the fight which ended in the passage of the country’s first Commission On Prosecutorial Conduct, and discovery reform (requiring prosecutors to share information with defense attorneys very early in the process). I am projected to graduate from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. My dream is to exonerate others as an attorney.

I have found meaning in what happened to me. I believe my purpose in the world is to fight wrongful conviction. It’s not easy, and I’m reliving some really painful things at times, but I know that I am making a difference, and that brings me healing. Now I am an advocate. That’s who I am. I know that I am more than my back story, and I finally feel a sense of peace. I try to live as best as I can, and I try to always take the negatives and turn them into positives. I think that’s the right approach.


People are dealt difficult hands in life. And we don’t really have any control over that. But, what we do have control over, is our response, how we let it affect us, and what we do with our lives moving forward. I would tell someone who’s just ready to be done in their situation that maybe if they persisted just a little bit longer there would be a breakthrough, and things would turn around. Think about other people that you could positively impact, or think about the people that love and depend on you.

And if you think that way, then I believe that people can find reservoirs of strength within them that they didn’t know existed. So, you can’t quit right now. Just hang on for the next moment. Keep going. And as long as you are trying, the right people will be put in your path at the right time, at the right moment, and in the right way. If you persist, good things will come to you. Just remember – persistence overcomes resistance.