In May 2019 I saw Jeffrey Deskovic on NBC Nightly News in the feature entitled “Making A Difference.”
Upon hearing that Jeffrey spent sixteen years in prison for a wrongful conviction, I thought to myself, “How do you survive sixteen years in prison for a crime you didn't commit?”
In Jeffrey's Words:
Tony: I see more of you on TV than I do any place else.
Jeffrey D.: Right, I know, I know.
Tony: OK, Jeff…thank you very much for doing this interview. What was your immediate reaction upon hearing you were found guilty of a crime you did not commit?
Jeffrey D.: Well, my immediate reaction was…I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I actually didn’t trust my ears…I was stunned. I thought maybe I misheard. I went from that to when I was satisfied it was confirmed. Then I didn’t...I didn’t know what was going to happen to me next.
Tony: It’s bad enough being found guilty...being handed a sentence. What was that like?
Jeffrey D.: Just as background Tony, you realize that the day that you’re convicted is not the same day that you’re sentenced. You know that, right?
Tony: Yes I know that.
Jeffrey D.: There’s a lag. I just wanted to make sure you’re clear on that. In terms of being sentenced, my mind just kind of drew a blank when I was sentenced because my plan in going into the sentencing hearing was to try to stop the sentencing altogether. Therefore, I had made an emotional appeal to the trial judge asking him to overturn the conviction because I was innocent and I referenced the DNA.
Maybe I did that out of survival. Maybe out of some basic level of needing to believe in something in order to survive. I thought in my head that this appeal…my verbal appeal to the judge, was going to work. Maybe I needed to believe that that was going to work, and that I would not, in fact, be sentenced, but that he would overturn the conviction. After all, the DNA didn’t match me. So, it appeared to me that he had grounds to do that. When it didn’t work, he sentenced me anyway, despite having him tell me on the record, “Maybe, you are innocent.” I thought my life was over at that point.
Tony: Understandable. What was it like when the proverbial “door” slammed behind you? How did you wrap your head around that? I’ve always found that to be amazing. That's especially true of somebody in your situation where you’re innocent. You’re in prison, and “the door” closed behind you. How do you deal with that?
Jeffrey D.: Well, are we talking about it broadly? Are you literally asking me what happened next, and what my thoughts and feelings were? I need you to clarify your question a little bit to help me to answer.
Tony: Yes, when you came to the stark realization, “I am in prison.” How did you face that? The fact that, “I am in prison.”
Jeffrey D.: Yeah, well, here’s the best way to answer that, I think...let me quickly recount what happened there. I don’t know how else to discuss it like in an overview type of way. So, once I left the courtroom, when I was escorted out of the courtroom, they put me into a holding cell area. My mind was spinning, and I didn’t know what the heck to think or to feel. A bailiff or a correction officer…some security member walked past the holding area where I was. He could see that I was going through something mentally, but he really didn’t know what to say or do. He asked me if I have any items on me that I wanted to give to him. That he could then give to my family who was still in the courtroom.
I remember giving a…giving a comb and a few miscellaneous…no, wait a minute…no, no, no...that was when I was convicted. Scratch all of that. That was when I as convicted. I’m sorry. I’m confused. I want to talk to you about when I was convicted as I think that there’s some material there that I’d like you to know about. Then I’ll come right back to the sentencing.
When I was convicted, I was brought to this holding area, and my mind was spinning. I didn’t know what to think. The guard asked me if I had anything that I wanted to give my family. I remember I gave him a wallet. I gave him a comb and this small container that is used for collecting coins. I gave this to him, but I was giving this to him like if I was giving mementos to my family to remember me by because I didn’t think I was going to see them anymore. I thought that was it.
Tony: That’s got to be some feeling.
Jeffrey D.: Then, they brought me downstairs to the bullpen area where it’s just like a bench and lots of cages. But there were other prisoners in the other cages with me. Suddenly, somebody joined them that had also come in from the street, like they had been free, went into the courtroom, and they were taken into custody. That person had been in the courtroom when I was convicted. He conveyed the information to the other prisoners as to why I was there, what I had just been found guilty of i.e. the sex offense with the murder. Suddenly, the entire bullpen area became hostile against me. They were like banging on the cages. They were trying to get into the area where I was. Some of them were trying to persuade the prison guards to take them from their cage and put them into the cage where I was so that they could attack me.
Tony: All of this and you’re a teenager?
Jeffrey D.: All this and I’m a teenager. Yeah…yeah. So, I remember I was brought to the jail then. This is still after I was convicted. I’m not back to the sentencing yet and…
Tony: You were found guilty?
Jeffrey D.: Yes, yes. So from this cage scene I just described to you, I remember they…they had all these handcuffs attached to each other [prisoners]. It was like a chain gang that they had me attached to them with other prisoners shortly after that. They had me in the back of this corrections truck. We’re all just sitting down, but the guards are up front separated by a barrier. The guards could not access the back of the vehicle from where they were without getting out of the vehicle, walking all the way around, unlocking the damn door and coming in. I was quite afraid that the other prisoners could have attacked me, and killed me if they wanted to as they were already hostile toward me. Looking back on it, it’s a miracle that they didn’t.
I was caught between being in that fearful state and in this dumbfounded type of state. I then transitioned into dealing with depression and suicide. I was evaluated by the jail mental health worker. The health worker then had me shipped to the outside evaluation because you have to have two people to certify you in order to put you into the mental health unit. It’s called the Forensic Unit in jail.
I was sent out and evaluated. The end result was that I was moved back to the jail to the Forensic Unit. It was like a hospital wing in the jail. I was put into suicide watch which meant that I wore a transparent yellow gown. The prisoners called it a “Gucci Gown.” It’s a paper mâché see through garment that has no pockets. The idea being, that unlike any other clothing item with which you could attempt to choke yourself with (or hide a weapon that you’re going to use on yourself), this paper mâché garment afforded no such opportunity. I was basically in that position while being monitored twenty-four hours a day from that point to maybe like a week of being sentenced.
I just want to share that I remember feeling humiliated by having to wear this garment. Everyone can see every inch of your body. Let’s just say that. Maybe within a week or so, they took me off that status, and I was allowed to wear regular jail clothes. By this point, mentally and emotionally, I was somehow able to work myself into this metaphorical “place” in my mind. I worked myself somehow into this “place” where I thought that things were going to be OK for me at the sentencing/hearing.
I learned that you couldn’t try to stop the sentencing. So, out of desperation and the need to survive, I thought that this would work i.e. the appeal to the judge that I already described to you. I actually eagerly went to court. This didn’t go right. The judge starts referencing all these letters that he’s got and mentioning different names of people. This person wrote him and that person wrote him, and this person wrote him...all expressing their belief in my innocence. I knew “background- wise” that within their letters to the judge, they expressed their beliefs in my interest. Some of the letters contained sentences from them to the judge that questioned, and were critical about the police interrogation procedures. This is what culminated into the coerced false confession.
I knew that the letters had that background information in them. I knew that they also referenced the DNA evidence not mentioning me. In that context (I’m referencing this), I’m asserting my innocence and I’m referencing the DNA. Knowing that he already knows of this from their letters plus he presided over the trial, I thought that this was going to work. He starts mentioning all of these places that reference my innocence, and he goes on after mentioning three or four places or people, and he goes on to make his own statement. He then said, “And maybe, you are innocent” In his own words, he stated, “Maybe, you are innocent.”
Tony: You’re thinking, “this is good. I am innocent. It’s going to work.”
Jeffrey D.: Correct. What’s the logical thought that flows from the judge by saying that? What would you think is going to be the next thing that is going to happen?
Tony: I’m innocent. Let me go home.
Jeffrey D.: Right. I’m not thinking. It’s all going to go south from there. Instead, he then says, “You know, but nonetheless the jury has spoken, and there’s no legal authority for me to overturn the conviction, which just to make a brief digression…to make a comment about the law…just limited to the law.” That’s not true legally because there is a provision in the law by which the judge can overturn the conviction, which he could have done by reversing any number of rulings he made against me that were improper in the course of the trial. For example, he could have reversed himself because he gave the jury an incorrect definition of what custody is. By law, if a suspect is in custody, then there are other legal requirements the police have to meet. The jury has to determine if they met them or not. The judge told the jury that what they’re evaluating is critical. It’s one of the few times ever that the jury has to make any decision at all that doesn’t relate to the facts which have to do with the law. As a general matter, the judge is deciding all legal issues. The jury is there to determine facts. His job was to give them the correct law. He was supposed to tell the jury that custody means whether or not a suspect is free of any crime would have believed that they were free to go.
Instead, the judge told the jury that custody means if the police stopped me on the street with guns drawn while taking me against my will to the police station. That’s an example of an issue of law that the judge could have used to overturn the conviction in order to stop this injustice from going forward. For example, he could have reversed the ruling he made against me. One of the statements in the false confession that I made was that I said I ripped the victim’s bra off. The victim’s clothes (including the bra) had been entered into evidence, which meant the jury was allowed to look at that. They asked. They sent out a note saying that they wanted to look at the bra. It was at that time that the judge said, “Well, these clothing items, including the bra, which had transferred from custody of the prosecutor to me that they had apparently been left in the courtroom over the weekend.” He claimed that it appeared as though the custodians thought that the clothing items were garbage. Therefore, they threw them out.
That prevented them from looking at the bra because my lawyer was happy. When my defense lawyer asked to see the bra, he said to me, “Well, that’s good. I want them to think because there are some bras that cannot be ripped off of someone's body. If they look at that bra, and they determine that to be so, then that means they are going to conclude that the confession is false. If they conclude that; you’re going to be found not guilty.” The clothes were missing. The judge admitted that he substituted a photo and said, “You can almost see the bra in the photo.” He gave that to the jury to use instead of the clothing items rather than declaring a mistrial. That was another clear-cut legal way that the ruling (that the judge) could have overturned the conviction. What he said to me is that there was no legal authority.
OK...that is bologna. That’s the point in mentioning all of that. Just like that section of the law says that the trial judge has discretion to overturn a conviction if there is…well, this is part of it. It says he can overturn a conviction if there's an issue of law that would result in an appellate court reversing the conviction. The judge can save the system, the court resources, and the defendant the time and trouble of being in prison to wait for an appeal if it’s going to be reversed anyway, the judge can do it.
Tony: Let’s talk about you. With all this, how are you controlling your anger?
Jeffrey D.: At this point, in the courtroom?
Tony: Overall and in the courtroom.
Jeffrey D.: Well, in the courtroom, I’m still…well, in the narrative of what I’m telling you here. I’m still in the courtroom waiting for him to say the next words, which are going to avert this calamity, but then (and I couldn’t believe what he said) he sentenced me to a fifteen to life sentence. I want to mention this because for the most part, this is all stuff I have not previously discussed. You are getting some “new content here.” He then says to me, “You know, I’ve been studying you closer than I’ve ever studied any other defendant here in my courtroom, and although I have a wide discretion as to how I am going to sentence you, I decided what I was going to do with this one a long time ago.”
Tony: So, he has the “power of God?”
Jeffrey D.: Basically, yeah, he does. So, he then sentences me to fifteen to life in prison, which is the least sentence he could have given me on a murder conviction.
Tony: What’s it like to hear that?
Jeffrey D.: I thought he was prejudiced against me. What is he thinking about? He’s going to sentence me prior to my being convicted? What does that even mean? What does that suggest? I thought it was a bias on his part. Anyway, he says it and he gives me the fifteen to life sentence. I am again emotionally crushed.
Tony: You had to be.
Jeffrey D.: And so, once again, I'm faced with the whole routine on the suicide observation and this “Gucci Gown” and all this other crap is again instituted. At some point, I’m moved from the county jail Forensic Unit. I am transferred to the state prison reception center. This is the first place they send you to issue you all their supplies, for them to evaluate you, and for them to determine which prison you’re going to be sent to. Yeah, which permanent prison, which initial prison beyond the reception center that you’re going to be sent to. They’re supposed to do a “needs’ assessment.” In other words, that whole prospect of being moved from the county jail to the reception center was a terrifying prospect because the bulk of my county jail time had been spent in the Forensic Unit in which the civilians were in charge.
They were the ones interacting with me. There was guards there, but that was just to maintain security. I did very little talking. The idea that I was now going to be in a place where the guards (who were generally nasty) were now suddenly in charge is sobering. There were no civilians around. That was a terrifying prospect for me. Again, I remember being in handcuffs and having this chain around my waist, and having my legs being fastened together, and being fastened on the legs of the prisoners on the bus with me. I remember being afraid that I was going to be assaulted again. Just so people know, I’m not some punk or some coward. I’m seventeen years old. I’m there with fully grown men…adults, many of whom are criminals, who did in fact commit brutal crimes. If they had decided to attack me, what the hell am I going to be able to do against them? I’m being real about it. That’s the background in terms of my being fearful of them.
I remember when we finally arrived outside of the prison. I remember how large these prison walls were. I remember seeing the menacing barbed wire on the top of the walls and, uh, I remember being scared “shitless” at that point.
If I could have willed the bus to stop moving, I would have. I wanted to, but I had no control over it. So, it keeps moving anyway...it keeps moving into the damn prison.
Tony: Then, your heart must have sagged right through your feet?
Jeffrey D.: Yeah, it did. That’s completely accurate. Yeah, yeah…so it took me about six months to pick myself up…you know, get back “on my feet” metaphorically speaking, and to not be in this depressed, suicidal state.
Tony: Controlling your anger and getting yourself back together…
Jeffrey D.: Well, I wasn’t angry at all until that point. It wasn’t an “angry matter” at all. I was depressed. I wanted to kill myself. I thought that my life was over. There was part of me that felt like I was crazy because I couldn’t believe everything that my senses were telling me...I'M IN PRISON!! There’s this wall, and guards, and being sentenced, and all this craziness. Come on...this really couldn’t...what are you kidding me? This isn’t happening, but it was.
Tony: You're thinking “This is not me!”
Jeffrey D.: Right, right, right. That was the “stuff” going on in my mind rather than anger. Then, I wound up going from one delusion to another. At some point, I again worked my way into this “place” where now I’m grasping onto the appeal. I thought that it would take six months. In fact, what happened was that because the court system was backed up, and the legislature was not allocating enough funds to hire more judges, despite the judicial branch expressing the need for such, it wound up taking four years to get the appeal decided rather than the one to two years that it took.
Tony: At what point, did you realize that, all things considered, now you had the strength to survive prison life? How did you find that strength, despite getting pummeled with depression, understand where you are, and being handed a sentence? How did you find that strength?
Jeffrey D.: First and foremost, belief in God. Secondly, I was just focusing on the appeal the entire time. In my mind, I lived from appeal to appeal. I’d lose one. I’d crash down. The crash down to earth would be long and hard. Secondly, within a couple of weeks (sometimes as long as a month), I would get up, dust myself off, and then focus onto the next appeal which I was sure I was going to win because I was innocent. I still believed in the system. I very naively thought that the higher up in the court process you got, the more accurate the courts got. I lived that way for about eleven years. I guess the sure thing of what I am getting at here is belief in God, and living from appeal to appeal. A third thing is I kind of worked myself into this routine; you know like a routine, a mental routine involving euphemisms...“I’m not going to my prison assignment. I’m going to school,” or “I’m going to training,” or “I’m going to work,” and “it’s not the warden anymore, it’s the superintendent.” You try to pretend like it’s normal as to when you make a phone call. It’s a collect call, and you realize that the receivers [of the calls] are being overcharged. That’s somehow normal.
It’s normal to be strip searched as that is the price of getting a visit that would otherwise not happen.
There’s some other point I wanted to make here. Another thing was during 1997-98, the prison that I was in allowed us to have televisions in the cell. That's another delusion that was added into all of this stuff that I’m telling you about. The mental framework I’m describing existed in my head. My television stayed off because I was going to the law library...learning law. I was reading three or four nonfiction books a week, but to the extent that it could have gone on, there were certain times that I did turn it on. There were programs that I would watch…like weekly programs. I would tune in and watch, but to me, in my mind, the delusion was that I wasn’t watching programs. I was instead visiting with friends. For the most part, I was not getting any outside visitors. My only consistent person was my mother, but then it seemed to me that with the slightest little thing that would happen, she would suddenly cancel the visit and not come up to see me. I would wake up on the morning of the day that I’m expecting a visit. I would wake up around at 8:00 to 8:30 AM and I’m looking forward to the visit. There’s no way for her to call in.
I didn't realize from that point up until to 2:00 PM that, in fact, no visit would be happening. I’m in the state of disbelief. I’m looking for this visit. I’m jonesing mentally because every time I hear the boots of the correction officers, or I hear the keys jingling, or I hear them opening up the lock box I’m like a Pavlov Dog. I’m anticipating that they’re going to let me out to go to this visit. This is all happening simultaneously as I am looking forward to this terrible vending machine food in the visiting room that was, nonetheless, better food than the slop they’re serving us in the mess hall. Sometimes in my mind, I was looking forward to the visits not for the conversation, but to eat. I guess the point of my mentioning all of this is that I’m giving you some context for the purpose of understanding my emotional position. You watch weekly TV programs. The actors become friends and visitors in lieu of real/actual friends and visitors.
I learned to play chess. So, I purchased a mini chess library. Another routine was that I would listen to sports talk radio on Saturday. It’s not that I was listening to sports talk radio. That was my lifeline to the outside. In that context, receiving junk mail was my contact with the outside world. The guards would walk around at 3:00 PM for the mail. At times, they would pass by my cell and not stop. That hurts! It really hurts everybody. We had a saying for that. We used to call them “drive-bys.”
Tony: It was a shooting. It was an “emotional shooting.” They were killing you.
Jeffrey D.: Yeah, they’re walking by. There’s no mail. They’re “shooting” me! They’re hurting me, yeah. So, I used to go to the law library. That gave me a sense of empowerment...a sense of solace. I felt like I was getting the knowledge that I needed in order to fight back.
Tony: So, that was your “emotional oasis?”
Jeffrey D.: So to speak…yes.
Tony: Your mail, your TV; that was your connection...your bridge to the outside world.
Jeffrey D.: Correct, yes. I used to collect...It was very hard to get newspapers and magazines. But to the extent that I was able to get them, I used to collect articles about other people who were exonerated. I would cut the things out. I’d collect them. I’d save them, and I would read them in an obsessive or a desperate manner. Who represented the person that was exonerated? What was the route? The legal route that they took? Could I track down that person’s address? At times I would imagine…I would try to imagine what the scene outside of the prison just beyond the gate…what that actually looked like. I imagined this caravan of media, and friends, and a legal team, and everyone else, and their mother waiting outside just beyond the gate to receive the person who had just been released from a wrongful imprisonment. I would imagine that scene, and take it in with all of its glory. I would vicariously celebrate this whole imaginary scene. This is all in my head.
Tony: You vicariously thought that was you?
Jeffrey D.: That was me. That would pick me up emotionally, but that would only last for a couple of days or sometimes even just a couple of hours because…
Tony: You’d crash?
Jeffrey D.: Yes, I would crash because many of these exonerations were being based upon DNA evidence. I had DNA evidence on my behalf, but It didn’t match me. The only technical difference between these individual cases, and mine with respect to the DNA is that they determined the DNA test results before I was convicted. These people were getting the test results afterwards. Technically, that meant in their cases, it was newly discovered. It was not taken into account by the jury and, therefore, the court would overturn the conviction. Whereas for me, it would not, in fact, be new. The jury did know that, but they voted GUILTY anyway. This was the bizarre dichotomy which my case was going through. It was used to engineer frustration, and ultimately caused me to crash back down to earth. The articles I collected were clearly a double-edged sword.
I used to collect nature scenes. There was a big square box within the cell. Inmates were allowed to post pictures on it of whatever you wanted. I used to tape these pictures and sometimes even paste them there with this “fake toothpaste.” This speaks volumes to the “horridness” of the toothpaste by using it as glue. Can you can imagine? I would tape these things on that box and I would position my head in such a way that when I woke up in the morning, the first thing I could take in was a nature scene.
It looks like I’m going to get into the freakin’ prison mall despite the bars, and the guards, and every other f’in' queue that existed. That will hit me in the face soon enough.
Tony: You were out of prison for that morning.
Jeffrey D.: Well, for that second or two. It wasn’t even for the whole morning. It was for that second or two until I moved, and then I saw the rest of the crap. Then I came back to realize that I am where I am.
Tony: Now, you’re back.
Jeffrey D.: Now, I’m back. I used to play sports. I primarily played a lot of basketball with some ping pong, and chess. Unlike a fantasy of children on a playground imagining they’re professional players, I created this delusion, this elaborate delusion, to leave the prison for a few hours in which I was a professional player as were all the other players. The people on the sideline? They were the spectators.
Tony: Michael Jordan?
Jeffrey D.: Yes, at one location, there was an armory That was one structure. They would alternate between sending us between the armory one night, and the next time for recreation, you go to a gym. To me, one location was home and the other location, were for road games. I would pretend…I would pretend that there were TV sports anchors doing the commentary. I played a lot of two on two and three on three. Occasionally, when we would stop and huddle to strategize, I would like pretend that our coach just called a time out to try and regroup his team and make an adjustment. So, it was all this crazy delusion is what I’m getting at.
Tony: You had your own NBA in prison.
Jeffrey D.: Correct. I applied something similar to like the chess and to ping pong. It was more like playing tennis than ping pong. This was another way to become strong enough to do all this stuff. I got to add that on when my appeals were over after about eleven years. That was the most difficult time for me other than the initial part I’ve described; the depression and suicidal thoughts. Now there no longer was an appeal to orient my mind to anymore.
Tony: There was no “emotional bridge” to get you there?
Jeffrey D.: Correct. At that point, my legal work (if we’re going to utilize poetic license and even call it that) no longer consisted of going to the law library. Legal arguments are now irrelevant because I don’t have any appeals left. The only way back into court at that point would be to find some kind of previously unknown evidence of innocence. Since I was sitting in my prison cell unable to run down any leads myself, and since I had no money (my family had no money to hire a lawyer or an investigator), that all ended up that I had to start writing letters. I wrote hundreds of letters to lawyers and investigators to try to find somebody who could take my case pro bono. I hoped that they could then do this investigation and find this new evidence. Other than that, there was no longer any way out.
This writing for freedom (or as I used to think of it, “writing for freedom” not fighting but “writing for freedom”) would not just limit me to writing innocent senaties, law firms, investigators, and everyone else, but I would also extend that. I came up with this line of reasoning through which if I could conceive of some kind of “indirect route” i.e. somebody to whom I could reach out to and would ultimately set in motion a chain of events. This chain of events could ultimately culminate into my getting the legal representation I needed.
If there were a line of reasoning I could envision, I wrote the letter and I took the chance. I always made sure. I always thought people were dense, and that they might not understand what they could do to help me get the representation. So, I always spelled it out. Right? So, I guess my point in saying all of this is that writing letters buoyed my fighting spirit. That made me feel like I was still on my feet...like I was still fighting. Consequently, during the time periods in which I no longer had ideas, or that I couldn’t physically come up with addresses, I was totally only dependent upon my mother. She never seemed to have any kind of urgency about anything. I might be waiting a month to six weeks for her to make a phone call or look up an address.
Finally after that time:
“Did you make the phone call? Did you get the address?”
“Yeah, I called.”
“Okay, good, what happened?”
“They didn’t answer.”
“OK, did you call them back?”
I’m totally dependent upon this one lifeline.
All this writing of letters helped me. This is what occupied my mind for the next four years. Now, I’ve “got fifteen years in,” I began needing something different to…well. I want to digress here and say that at some point.
You know at one time there was a cruel joke originating from innocent “senaties” aka the “Senate of Wrongful Convictions.” I got a letter from one of the students and they told me that they were, in fact, going to take my case. So, I briefly had this flash of hope. But then by the time they got the documents and all the stuff together, that student moved on. That was Sarah Birmingham.
I’d like her name to appear because it would be nice to just say “Hello.” I can’t find her.
By the time all of the paperwork was over with, she graduated. My case was then transferred to a different law student, who was not willing to grandfather in Ms. Birmingham’s decision to go forward with my case. They had to do a whole new evaluation and arrived at a conclusion that they were not, in fact, going to take my case.
Around the same time, some people entered into my mother’s world that didn’t previously exist. Everybody made contributions to where we got to $8,000.00 and we hired this private lawyer to file the habeas corpus petition. I filed paper work to get the money back because these lawyers waited until the last possible day to file the paperwork as a result of relying on this inaccurate information from a court clerk as to the filing procedure. In the end, I’m turned down because the paperwork arrived four days late. As a result of that (which was traumatic in and of itself), I wound up filing paperwork trying to get the money back so that I could then hire an investigator since the center was not an option anymore. After about a year, that was successful. I got the money back, but within a couple of weeks it was agreed upon that that money was supposed to go for an investigator. Within another couple of weeks, my mother spent the money on her bills. And so, I was again in a really bad position.
Tony: Talk about chasing your tail from a financial standpoint.
Jeffrey D.: All these things, Tony, really...I couldn’t win for losing.
So, four years has gone by, and by the way, I’m very rarely getting answers. It’s harder for me to think of new ideas. It's getting even harder to get addresses. Between all of that, and the money being spent (misspent), I then latched onto parole as a potential way of regaining my freedom. Even then, that door was slammed shut because the parole board in their decision to me noted that I had a great educational record...a great disciplinary record. Again, I had letters of support which included a prison employee recommending that I be paroled, but that nonetheless, I had been convicted of a brutal and senseless crime.
Therefore, releasing me would be to lessen its seriousness. So, they denied me parole. It seemed kind of clear to me that my asserting my innocence at the parole board rather than taking responsibility and expressing remorse and showing some insight into my behavior was a factor that worked against me. And so, I got turned down for parole. At that point, the thoughts of suicide returned greater than ever and I very nearly did commit suicide. By a weird or by a cosmic intervention…
Tony: Divine Intervention.
Jeffrey D.: Divine Intervention. I suddenly got in touch with this pen pal. I had placed an ad. One of my tactics in trying to fight back was placing ads in different newspapers and magazines. My goal: Trying to find a pen pal, trying to find a champion even when it was just a pen pal route. My plan was at some point or another, in the course of those conversations, to illustrate that what I was doing in prison would become the topic. My plan was to then try to explain that I was innocent and then show the legal paperwork. Hopefully, this pen pal would evolve into a champion who would try to build this bridge between me and the legal help I needed. Placing ads was a tactic as well.
SIDE BAR: I have to take a “half digression” here. I got into trouble for that twice. A sergeant in a prison located in a different geographical area came across my ad. He wrote me up for it even though I was not even an inmate in his prison. He wrote me up from afar for placing the ad because he claimed that that I was in fact soliciting money from the outside by writing in the ad; I was looking for help…since I was innocent and I wanted help with a fundraiser. I was soliciting and he didn’t want me to do that. Although I was written up for that I kept doing it in any damn way as you might imagine.
Anyway, coming back to this; the point is that this pen pal arrived out of nowhere from one of these events. We wrote back and forth for a year. He tried to give me suggestions but he was in over his head. He didn’t understand that aspect of it. I would ignore those portions of his letter pertaining to his ideas e.g. “Why don’t you write to the police oversight committee about what the cops did to you, and that could somehow result in you getting out?” More ridiculous ideas like that were also included. He just didn’t know what he was talking about. Instead, I focused on the morale aspect of what he was referring to. He was a man of God. He was expressing, “Don’t kill yourself...” This is the biblical basis for his beliefs, and why I shouldn’t embark on that course of action. He would encourage me to keep going, and sometimes we would talk a little bit about sports as a distraction. I guess my point is that this pen pal out of Sacramento, California (whom I never met) helped me to keep going this past year. I would openly ask him in letters: “Do you think I should quit? Do you think I should just commit suicide? Should I just be done with all of this?”
So, that was one aspect of it. Another miraculous aspect.
Tony: When you talk about help…that’s very interesting. That’s on the outside. What about inmates who helped you?
Jeffrey D.: Yeah, OK. There were some. There were a couple. The general rule in prison is: “You don’t have no friends in prison.” That’s a general rule, but there were some people I let in within “two arms” length. There were a few people that I made exceptions for that I did consider to be friends. So, some of them (a few of them) encouraged me to keep going. The most interesting person among all of them was Frank Sterling.
Tony: Frank Sterling?
Jeffrey D.: Yes, F-R-A-N-K S-T-E-R-L-I-N-G. I knew Frank for thirteen and one-half years. Frank was innocent too. Every six weeks, Frank and I would get together in the prison yard. Our conversations would have two aspects to them. The first thing was we would try to encourage each other to keep going. We would try to keep each other’s morale up. The second thing was that we would start brainstorming about what was the next move to make. The conversations would go something like this:
“Did you hear about the latest exoneration?”
“No, no who was the lawyer?”
“Who was the lawyer that represented them?”
“What route did they go?”
“Hey Jeff, did you see, did you see the latest book about wrongful conviction?”
“No, no…but who was the author? Do we have any contact information?”
“Frank, did you see the latest Court of Appeals decision that came down?”
“No, Jeff, but listen, is the decision retroactive? Is it going to apply to old cases?”
You know that we were like scheming and brainstorming or however the hell else you want to describe it. That would be what went on for thirteen and one half years.
We made a promise that whoever made it out first would try to help the other person, even it was just on the level of trying to get the media to become aware of the other person’s case. I just want to note historically that…well, let me say this; and I am going to come back to Frank. One of my letters I sent to a book author was forwarded to an investigator by someone at at the publishing house. This investigator, Claudia Whitman, wrote me back. When I showed her the paperwork that the DNA didn’t match me, she became the champion that I had been obsessively looking for. She connected me to the Innocence Project. She lobbied them from outside of their organization, and got other respected legal entities to lobby them. Then, I also got lucky in that my case ended up in Maggie Taylor’s caseload. Maggie was an intake worker who was not a lawyer. Every time the Innocence Project lawyer determined that they were not in fact going to take my case due to the DNA already not matching me, Taylor would go back to the drawing board. She would come up with some new theory as to how DNA could exonerate me and ultimately presented my case three times.
The winning idea being one that I had suggested...the DNA Data Bank. She got them to take my case. All of those things were key factors. Another key factor was the district attorney at the time, Jeanine Pirro. DA Pirro was not the DA when I was convicted, but she became the DA before my first Appeal was decided. Pirro had blocked me from getting further testing twice. Her office had fought me on all seven of those (my appeals) including getting me blocked time i.e. the lateness that I talked about earlier. She left office, and her successor was not dug in. As I understand it, neither one of them liked the other. Pirro was in the middle of running for Attorney General. I believe that her successor was DA Janet DiFiore. I think that DiFiore was trying to ruin Pirro’s Attorney General run. Her way of doing that was allowing me to have the testing hoping that I would be exonerated and would have that come out during her run for AG. That was another behind the scene’s type of thing.
"It seems kind of clear that Barry Scheck (One of the co-founders Of The Innocence Project) was a bigger public figure than she was at that time." She had only been the DA for about eighteen months. Pirro leaving office is another key factor. In my case, the last key factor was that we got lucky in that the actual criminal (the actual murderer) killed a second victim three and a half years later. The victim was a school teacher who had two kids. His arrest resulted in his DNA being found in the Data Bank.
By the time I got the DNA testing, I had served close to sixteen years in prison. DiFiore allowed the crime scene DNA evidence to be entered into the DNA Databank and it matched the actual criminal. That’s how my charges were overturned and ultimately dismissed on actual innocence grounds.
Steven Cunningham, the actual criminal, appears on the Deskovic Foundation YouTube channel confessing to the crime (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYNnBOJHTF4).
Tony: That started off with everything coming out for you in a good way?
Jeffrey D.: Yeah, so since we talked about the emotional/psychological aspects, I’ll be quick. I just want to share that when my lawyer came to the prison the day before I got out. She told me that the items had tested and I said, “No, they haven’t. They are not supposed to be tested for another month. What do you mean?” She said to me, “No, they were. The DA pulled some strings, and they tested ahead of time and the results match the actual perpetrator. You’re going home tomorrow.”
I said to her, “No, I’m not.” I was so traumatized by that point. I couldn’t…I was afraid to hope anymore. I hadn’t been hoping in years by that point. We went back and forth three times with her telling me I was going home. I’m telling her I’m not. My head spins, and I’m in a mental paralysis for the next three and one-half years. She’s holding my hand, and my mind is spinning. I’m talking incoherently about all these random thoughts, one after the other...none of which have anything to do with the other, much less anything to do with me going home. And every now and then, she would break in with, “Are you ready to talk about tomorrow yet?” I would say, “No, no get it away from me.”
Eventually what made it real was when she said, “You know, the visit’s almost over, and there’s a ton of work to be done including buying clothes for you. I need to get your pants, and suit sizes and your shoe size, everything else…and the stuff with media.” And that’s what kind of made it real. That allowed me to accept the idea, wrap my head around the idea I was going home. But of course, at that point, a different fear entered my head. I was afraid that something was going to happen between that day, and the next through which the DA was then going to change her mind. That they would do what they always do, which is fight against me and winning. That was the end of the journey.
Tony: Now, let’s talk about something else. How did you face going back to living in prison? How did you face the inmates who wanted to hurt you? How did you accept that?
Jeffrey D.: Well, sometimes they would attack me, and I got the hell beat out of me. When I got into my mid-twenties...I had grown more then. I became a little stronger and I had more experience. Occasionally, I would win. I still lost more than I won. But that’s part of…yeah...
And, occasionally, a couple of times, I had an intervention by one inmate or another. That happened a couple of times where other inmates would intervene and let it be known, “Look, leave him alone. You attack him, you’re attacking me.” You know that kind of thing. So, that happened a couple of times but not always.
Tony: Now, you talk about establishing a routine. Of course, looking at your photographs... there was a load of them. So “playing in the NBA” was another routine. So that explains that.
Jeffrey D.: Correct. Right.
Tony: You state, “Prison was a nonstop obstacle course.” Where and how did you find the emotional stamina to run this “obstacle course?” I don’t mean to sound like I am duplicating the same question, but…
Jeffrey D.: But the answer is the same as I’ve described already though. All those factors that I referenced earlier apply to this question. Does that make sense? Can you follow the logic of that, or the answer is I didn’t have a choice. I just did not give up. I was not going to give up? I applied all of those things and I tried to outsmart everybody. When the guards who were on duty were particularly dangerous, I did everything I could to avoid coming to their attention. I wouldn’t speak to the civilians unless I absolutely had to. It was my way of trying to…I would even “study” the other inmates. I could determine whoever had this proverbial “dark cloud” above them. That made it clear to me that they were going to self-destruct. I stayed as far away from them as I could. I didn’t talk to a lot of them. I tried to do everything I could to maneuver around all of these obstacles. That was all out of motivation of trying to survive. I tried to keep my focus on the street, on trying to overturn the conviction, in trying to become free, and not make anything out of prison politics or anything else. I tried to avoid making anything out of the prison to be important or to be a distraction.
Tony: Once you got out...once you were released, you said you had “a lot of living to do.” How did you adapt to that? What did you do with your “a lot of living?”
Jeffrey D.: Because I very rarely…my adrenaline was always flowing and so I didn’t sleep very much. I slept maybe two or three or four hours. Four hours might be a lot.
Tony: This was after you were released?
Jeffrey D.: This was after I was released. As time went on, I tried to learn about “this new culture and these new norms” which I didn’t understand. I purposely tried to break myself out of all of these prison survival tactics/methods of living. I tried to purge my vocabulary of these terms. Part of getting out of that mode was not to use prison slang. Another thing I found was a lot of people who would help me with one minor thing or another with respect to technology. The more I understood how to use the functions of the cell phone, the more I became a little more adept with e-mails, the computer, or anything else. The more I learned about technology, I felt the more tied into the world. The less I felt like I was in some world I didn’t belong in.
Tony: You made a transition based upon that concept?
Jeffrey D.: That helped me make a transition, correct. I used to go to therapy for...I went to therapy for four hours a week for six years. That was another part of it. Yeah, that’s…that rounds things up. When I got the scholarship from Mercy College, at least that gave me kind of routine of what to do over the next year; I took to complete the ten classes I needed to graduate. So, that’s all the answer in regard to transitioning.
Tony: You state, “Everyone has a role to play. I believe this is why this happened to me. I want to make a difference.” Based upon that, what advice would you give to a wrongly convicted individual at this point?
Jeffrey D.: I would say, “Do, what I did! Don’t quit! Study the law. Write letters looking for legal help. Focus in on what’s important...your freedom, not the prison politics. Study your case.”
Tony: And, last question; how did prison make you a better person?
Jeffrey D.: Well, I…maybe the biggest thing I just learned is never to give up. Another thing is setting…well part of that…is just setting goals, and just stop taking “No” for an answer. Keep working toward your goals…looking for other routes. The goal…what happens, when we make goals? Yeah, you make a plan, but what if the plan turns out not to be viable? That doesn’t mean that you stop working toward your goal, but it just means looking for another way to arrive there.
The route is never the object in and of itself. That’s just the bridge. I guess not giving up is one thing.
Thinking…really thinking my way through things is another. Certainly, after reading three or four nonfiction books a week, I feel like I learned far more that way than I ever did with a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree. I now appreciate the small things in life…I mean stuff like being free, and controlling your own electricity, freedom of movement, fresh air, sunlight, being able to be outside, even if it’s dark. I have an appreciation of the small things. I have a sense of trying to seize opportunities. I don’t think I ever thought that way before.
Tony: OK, I think that pretty much covers it.
Jeffrey D.: I have a sense of mission and meaning in life now which I didn’t have before.
Tony: And remember what I told you, Jeff, you are going to help so many people. That’s your purpose…that’s your station in life. You’re going to pay it forward by doing just what you’re doing.
Jeffrey D.: OK.
Tony: Many, many people need a guy like you.
Jeffrey D.: Amen.
Tony: That’s for sure. Again, thank you for the interview.
"Crime Report" AIR DATE: October 17, 2019 Jeffrey Deskovic was wrongly convicted in 1990 at the age of seventeen of raping, beating, and strangling a 15-year-old high school classmate. Deskovic was exonerated and released in 2006. He has become an advocate for criminal justice reform. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2hEZI5AVu4&t=1026s
Tony Lombardo is an independent wheelchair bound journalist who has been afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for over thirty-nine years.
Along the way, he has met numerous individuals who taught him the true meaning of the word C-O-U-R-A-G-E. As a means of "paying it forward," Tony founded Let's Hear Your Story (LHYS). LHYS provides a “nuts and bolts” approach as to how we face any obstacle(s) on “The Road of Life.”
Tony's YouTube survival story / synopsis entitled "You Are Not Your Illness.” These Words Gave Me The Strength Not To Kill Myself” appears at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOB2D8DgsLs&t=19s.
He writes for and manages the LHYS TAPinto news column: www.tapinto.net/towns/barnegat-slash-waretown/columns/lets-he ar-your-story-lhys. LHYS exhibits “social value” by focusing upon “How We Conquer Life's Obstacles.” It is truly an Emotional Stamina Showcase and Survivor's Journal. Anonymous stories are posted as well.
With help from his friend and co-author Craig Schwab, Tony wrote and self-published “On Both Sides of The Fence...How to Successfully Lead a Fulfilling Life Despite the Presence of Any Physical Challenge” online at www.barnesandnoble.com and www.amazon.com.
“I am very interested in obtaining survival stories for posting on the LHYS news column. Countless individuals will benefit from these accounts.”
Please feel free to contact Tony at: firstname.lastname@example.org.