We fight for the actually innocent.
The Foundation is not a criminal defense organization. Instead, it is solely concerned with wrongful convictions of actually innocent defendants who played no role in the crimes for which they were convicted. It seeks not only to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, but thereafter, to help heal exonerees after years of wrongful imprisonment.
Wrongful conviction causes extensive humiliation and suffering. It is not enough to simply free the innocent. The Foundation takes a global approach to help its clients. It seeks not only to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, but thereafter, to help heal exonerees after years of wrongful imprisonment.
On the legal end, staff investigators examine claims of wrongful conviction, and where warranted, conduct investigation to turn up a sufficient amount of previously unknown evidence of innocence. Staff counsel then file post-conviction claims of actual innocence, seeking the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted. In addition, the Foundation collaborates with private defense counsel to help exonerate their innocent clients.
WE TAKE ON DNA AND NON-DNA CASES. Other wrongful conviction groups focus exclusively on DNA-based cases. Yet, DNA evidence is available in only about one fifth of wrongful conviction cases. Convictions built largely or wholly upon circumstantial evidence are more difficult to overturn. The Foundation not only pursues DNA cases, it uniquely focuses its efforts on the harder non-DNA cases.
We Take On the Hard, Non-DNA Cases.
Since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases in which suspects were pursued until pre-trial DNA testing proved their innocence. One study revealed that, of 289 DNA exonerees, nearly two dozen served time on death row. The average prison stretch for the wrongfully convicted was thirteen and a half years. DNA also identified the real perpetrators in 117 cases, including Jeff's case.
However, DNA evidence is no panacea to prevent or correct all wrongful convictions, because it is only available in 5 to 12% of all serious felony cases. The destruction or misplacing of vital evidence which could be subjected to DNA testing is commonplace. The Innocence Project, which limits its case load to DNA cases, reports that, since 2004, it was forced to close 22% of its cases because of lost or missing DNA evidence.
To fill the gap, in addition to DNA cases, the Foundation takes on the harder non-DNA cases.
Parole Boards, though not legally obligated to, often require applicants to express remorse and take responsibility for their crimes as a condition of parole. This places the wrongfully convicted in a catch 22 position: either assert their innocence and thereby risk extending an already unjust prison stay, or falsely admit guilt and thereby provide the state with additional evidence which could be used to re-wrongfully convict them in the event that a new trial is obtained. We write letters to the parole board on behalf of our clients outlining all of the primary and secondary reasons for our belief in their innocence and urging the board to parole them. Completing an investigation and obtaining exoneration takes years, if it is even obtained, and we believe that it is far better for our clients to be out on parole in the meantime while we fight to prove their innocence than to remain incarcerated.
The buck does not stop at the courthouse door.
The wrongfully convicted serve an average of thirteen and a half years in prison. Upon release, exonerees face of host of problems trying to rebuild their broken lives, such as readjusting to being free; coping with the psychological and emotional after effects of wrongful imprisonment; reconnecting with immediate and extended family; learning new technology; obtaining employment; and putting together a social life. The Foundation provides them with short-term housing, regular contact, and where possible, referrals to potential jobs. In addition, as an individual, and at personal cost, Jeff informally organizes social outings so that exonerees can socialize with other exonerees for fellowship and support.
The Foundation also engages in public advocacy to raise awareness about wrongful convictions and seeks legislative changes to prevent wrongful convictions, while also educating and urging law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to, in the interim, voluntarily adhere to best practices while also learning the lessons of how other law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges went wrong in wrongful conviction cases for the purpose of avoiding those same mistakes and future wrongful convictions. We take positions on wrongful conviction related issues that our sister organizations are silent about, such as: criminalizing clear cut, intentional prosecutorial misconduct; automatic discovery (all the evidence against a defendant should be turned over at arraignment); the innocent prisoner's dilemma (the catch 22 parole issue described above); a commission on prosecutor conduct (an oversight board which would investigate allegations of prosecutorial misconduct); elimination of the guilt admission requirement in the administration of the sex offender program (for those prisoners who have maintained their innocence from the beginning). At other times, though not often, we sometimes take different positions than them, such as favoring DNA Databank Expansion [because it increases the possibility that the actual perpetrator will be identified during DNA testing via the databank]; and exoneree compensation.
The Foundation is the only entity of its kind initially funded out of the compensation paid to an exonereee that has an exonerative component to it. It was started by Jeffrey Deskovic, an exoneree who spent 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit.
At age sixteen, Jeff was charged with the brutal rape and murder of his high school classmate, an innocent fifteen year old Columbian immigrant named Angela Correa.
On the afternoon of November 15, 1989, Angela left home to take pictures for her photography class. Two days later, her naked, ravaged body was found in the woods near Hillcrest Elementary School in Peekskill, New York. At the time, Jeff was an isolated, awkward, naive kid. He knew Angela only casually.
Police claimed that Jeff was "overly upset" at Angela's funeral and were certain they had their man. They interrogated Jeff for over seven and a half hours, without his mother or legal counsel present. After browbeating and intimidating him, they ultimately extracted a false confession after promising that, once he confessed, he could go home.
In the 2007 “Report on the Conviction of Jeffrey Deskovic,” a specially convened legal commission noted that “crime scene DNA evidence introduced at trial proved that the semen recovered from the victim's body was not his.” Police and prosecutors knew this key fact long before trial. To bolster their phony case, the police, prosecutors and medical examiner all fabricated evidence that Jeff committed these horrible crimes.
Tragically, Jeff had an alcoholic and inept public defender unable to expose the deception. Jeff was tried as an adult, convicted, and sentenced to fifteen years to life. At sentencing, he sobbed and insistently told Judge Nicolas Colabella he was innocent. The judge responded, "maybe you are innocent," but sentenced Jeff anyway. He was sent to five maximum security prisons over the next sixteen years where he was beaten by other prisoners as a child rapist and fondled by a perverted corrections officer.
Jeff educated himself about the law in prison and pursued seven appeals. They all failed. The state appellate court stated with unqualified certainty that Jeff "struck the victim over the head with a blunt object, and dragged her into a wooded area, where he beat, raped and strangled her" and concluded "there was overwhelming evidence of the defendant's guilt." The court also found there was no "coercive environment or police misconduct that could induce a false confession” and "no police deception or improper use of the polygraph."
All these findings were wrong.
The U.S. Constitution preserves the writ of habeas corpus (literally, "deliver the body") as a last resort for prisoners whose federal constitutional rights were violated by state courts. The federal district court never considered the merits of Jeff's claims. Instead, it rejected the petition because his Georgia lawyer filed it four days later. The lawyer relied on assurances from the court clerk that the petition would be docketed on the date mailed, not the date received. On appeal, Jeff argued he did not create the four-day delay, the Government suffered no prejudice by it, and his habeas petition had substantive merit. The appellate court rejected all these arguments because his lawyer should not have relied "on verbal misinformation from the court clerk."
The Parole Board rejected Jeff's parole application after he became eligible because he refused to admit his guilt to these particularly brutal crimes.
After his appeals failed, Jeff spent years writing to countless journalists, faith-based organizations, law firms, innocence groups and anyone else who would listen to tell his story.
Three and a half years after he murdered Angela, drug addict Steven Cunningham murdered his girlfriend's sister, a school teacher named Patricia Morrison. Why? Because she refused to give him money to buy crack cocaine. Patricia had three young boys. Cunningham was convicted of her murder, incarcerated, and his DNA put into the FBI’s CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) databank. Years passed and Jeff finally reached The Innocence Project. It persuaded the new Westchester County DA to reexamine the DNA in Angela Correa’s murder. The database search revealed that Cunningham’s DNA matched the semen in Angela’s body.
Once confronted with this evidence, Cunningham confessed and pled guilty on March 16, 2007, to Angela’s murder. At sentencing, Angela’s mother said Jeff was "blamed and sacrificed like a lamb.” Patricia’s mother was also present. She said if law enforcement had not falsely accused Jeff, her daughter “would still be with us.” Had Cunningham gotten away with murder a second time, Jeff would still be in prison.
After DNA proved Cunningham, not Jeff, was Angela’s killer, on November 2, 2006, the judge who freed Jeff admitted “the undeniable fact that nothing can be done in this courtroom here today to erase the pain and suffering endured by you and your loved ones over the past sixteen years.” Jeff walked into prison at age seventeen and walked out at age thirty-three. His entire adolescence and formative years had been stolen from him by members of law enforcement.
To this day, none of the police, prosecutors or medical examiners who engineered Jeff’s conviction ever have been disciplined or suffered any career setbacks as a result of their outrageous, unethical conduct. In fact, Eugene Tumolo was promoted from Lieutenant to Chief of the Peekskill Police Department.
A PERFECT STORM OF GOVERNMENT MISCONDUCT
Police, the Medical Examiner and Prosecutors Were All Involved.
Peekskill detectives fed Jeff information about the crime scene on the pretext of seeking his help with the investigation; subjected him to a phony polygraph designed to obtain his false confession; and then cooked up false police reports attesting that Jeff knew non-public details about the crime and confessed to it.
The real perpetrator, Steven Cunningham, was a known local crack addict. Police had his fingerprints on file, and were aware that two boys saw him near the crime scene the day Angela was raped and murdered. Cunningham left behind four cigarette butts and a vial of crack cocaine at the crime scene.
Angela was a fifteen year old virgin and recent Columbian immigrant from a traditional Catholic family. The FBI’s DNA report conclusively excluded Jeff as a suspect. Likewise, hair analysis proved a critical hair found on Angela’s public area came from a black man, not a white man. Police, the medical examiner and prosecutors knew all this before trial. To explain this away, the medical examiner conspired with the prosecutor to fabricate evidence that Angela had a scarred hymen revealing prior sexual experience, and police and the prosecutor falsely claimed the semen came from her classmate named Freddy Claxton. However, they deliberately did not obtain hair and DNA from Claxton knowing this would have excluded him as the donor and undermined the phony story fed to the jury. Jeff’s alcoholic and inept public defender did not challenge this fabricated evidence or obtain independent experts to refute it.
Jeff sued the following:
• the City of Peekskill and police Lt. Eugene Tumolo, who was later promoted to Chief, and the detectives under him, Thomas McIntyre, David Levine, and Walter Brovarski
• the investigator from neighboring Putnam County, Daniel Stevens, who staged the phony polygraph to extract Jeff’s false confession and Putnam County
• the medical examiner, Louis Roh, M.D., and his boss Millard Hyland, M.D. because Hyland knew Roh’s notorious history of fabricating evidence and giving perjured testimony in prior cases, which led the Dutchess County D.A. to seek revocation of Roh’s medical license
• the Westchester A.D.A. George Bolen (dismissed because prosecutors are immune, even when they engage in misconduct), and Westchester County which employed Bolen and Roh
• the inept public defender, Peter Insero and his employer, the Legal Aide Society, and
• Alan Tweed, a Corrections Officer and sadistic pervert who repeatedly groped Jeff at the maximum security prison in Elmira, New York, known as “the Hill."
To date, all the defendants have settled save Putnam County which employs Stevens.
After he was released from prison, Jeff suffered from the emotional pain and problems universal to victims of wrongful conviction.
Exonerees typically have difficulty with normal activities most people take for granted. For example, many do not know how to use a GPS, an ATM machine, a cellular telephone or the Internet. In prison, they cannot run their own lives or make choices about even simple things. Mundane tasks like catching a train or buying items at a grocery store are huge hurdles.
Worse, many exonerees have nowhere to go. Families and friends often reject them. Not only do they lack life skills, they lack job skills, too. Employers have little interest in employing ex-cons and no time to hear pleas of actual innocence. Without employment, exonerees lack money to help them reintegrate into society. They fall into despair and onto the welfare rolls. Litigation against the state for compensation takes years before they ever see the first dime.
In addition, exonerees suffer from a host of common psychological problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, panic attacks, feeling overwhelmed by choices, free floating anxiety, mood swings, feeling frozen in time, and being out of synch with the pace of life.
Once, Jeff had a bright future in front of him. Instead, he suffered the loss of his youth and his dreams. While his classmates were dating, travelling, going to college and pursuing careers, Jeff learned prison etiquette and how to avoid beatings from sadistic guards and inmates. Jeff was thirty-three when he was released. People in their thirties usually have families, careers and established social lives. Jeff had none of these things. He emerged from prison gasping for a connection to others and used his compensation to help other exonerees in the same terrible situation.
ASSOCIATE'S, BACHELOR'S AND MASTER'S DEGREES
Jeff was determined not to let false imprisonment beat him. He studied hard.
Jeff obtained his A.S. in Liberal Arts from Corning Community College (Corning, New York) while he was still locked up. Once freed, he obtained his B.S. in Behavioral Science from Mercy College (Dobbs Ferry, New York in 2007, thanks to a full scholarship, including living for free in their dormitory, and a meal plan. He went on to graduate school and obtained his M.A. in Criminal Justice from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (New York, New York) in 2013. His thesis analyzed systemic deficiencies in police investigations and prosecution that lead to wrongful convictions and proposed solutions.
Additionally, Jeff co-designed a wrongful conviction syllabus which is being used at several colleges, including Farleigh Dickinson University, and Rockland Community College, where Jeff is an adjunct professor teaching wrongful convictions. The Bergen County, New Jersey, police academy has asked Jeff address each graduating class of police and corrections officers. The Foundation's publication, "The Thinking Jurors" manual has been distributed outside numerous state and federal courthouses.
3 Things You Can Do to End Police Killings and Fix the Criminal Justice System
December 10, 2014
Matthew Cooke and Adrian Grenier
We're doing a lot of talking. That's good. Now let's make them accountable.
Since the shooting of Mike Brown, more than 14 black teens have been killed by the police, including 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a boy in Cleveland, Ohio who was murdered less than two seconds after police arrived at a playground to answer a 911 call related to a black child carrying a pellet gun.
If you're a black teenager you're 21 times more likely to be shot by a police officer than if you're white. So we've been talking about racism.
Exonerated but not free: What do we owe the wrongfully convicted?
November 9, 2014 at 4:00 PM EST
The toll of the justice system on the wrongfully convicted
The toll of varied laws for compensation for the wrongfully convicted is examined.
In the US, state laws governing compensation for wrongfully convicted people vary significantly. While some states offer sizable packages for the exonerated, at least 20 offer nothing. And even for those that do, it may not be enough to make up for the emotional damage on those who've been wrongfully convicted. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
Chabad of the Shore
September 4, 2015
Chabad of the Shore, a Jewish community organization in Long Branch, NJ, hosted a dinner and invited Jeffrey Deskovic to be the guest speaker, followed by Q&A.
August 31, 2015
Jeffrey Deskovic was honored with being invited to speak at TEDxMartha's Vineyard along with other preeminent leaders, thinkers, and doers.
TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading, which now has given birth local, self-organized TEDx events on a global scale. TEDxMartha's Vineyard is a day of talks, performances, and community building on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts each August.