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How hope helped me survive 16 years of wrongful imprisonment

To: Those who are losing hope

From: Jeffrey Deskovic

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To those who are losing hope,

For my first 15 years in prison, I had hope. But then, like you, I almost lost it all. I remember sitting down in a room with a closed-circuit TV – a video with three people. It was kind of like being in a bad sci-fi movie because there was a lag between the audio and the video. The people on the screen asked me many questions, including questions about the programs I completed and the plans I mapped out for my future. All of my answers seemed to go over well, except for one.   

They asked me if I was maintaining my innocence.

I said, “Yes.”

When I tried to elaborate, they didn’t seem interested.

Three days later, I got an envelope in the mail. Inside there was a message that noted I had excellent educational and disciplinary records. It even mentioned that I had some letters of support. Nonetheless, they wrote that I was found guilty of committing a brutal and senseless crime. To release me, they said, would somehow lessen the seriousness of it.

That was the day I got denied parole. That was the day I started to struggle with hope. It was another door to freedom slammed shut in my face, and I was running out of doors to knock.  

I began openly asking a pen pal – a stranger,” Do you think I should just quit? Should I go ahead and kill myself?”

It felt like I was never getting out. And the truth of the matter was, I should have never been there in the first place.

I grew up in Peekskill, New York, a quiet diverse middle-class suburb, about 50 miles north of New York City. In school, I skipped first grade, so I was younger than the rest of my class. Starting in middle school, kids bullied me. I was an outcast, as I was not interested in drinking, parties, or chasing girls like some of my classmates. It got so bad, my grades suffered, and the school held me back.

My life took an ever darker turn during my sophomore year of high school. One of my classmates ​went to the park to take pictures of foliage for her photography class. Then, she went missing. Three days later, they found her body naked from the waist down.

Our quiet town became an atmosphere of fear, paranoia, and constant rumors. There were multiple town hall meetings held where they discussed safety tips and updates on the investigation. Parents were driving their kids straight to school, picking them up and bringing them directly home.

Everyone wanted to find the killer, including me.

Everyone wanted to find the killer, including me.

The police interviewed a lot of students from the high school. Some of those kids told the police they might want to speak to me because I didn’t quite fit in with everyone else. Also, I was a sensitive child. Despite not knowing the victim well, I cried a lot after she died. Some people found my reaction suspicious. And without realizing it, I quickly became a suspect.

At the time, my dream was to become a police officer, and the police acted as though they needed my help to solve the crime.

They would say things like, “The kids won’t talk freely around us, but they will around you. Let us know if you hear anything.”

Then, one day they told me that they had some new information that came into the police file, and they wanted to share it with me. But first, I had to take and pass a polygraph.

So the next day, without telling my mother, I went to the police station rather than report to school. The police drove me 40 minutes away by car to the town of Brewster in Putnam County. I didn’t have any way of leaving on my own. They never read me my rights, and I had no attorney or parent present. They put me in a small room and attached me to this polygraph machine. The officer giving me the test was dressed as a civilian. He raised his voice at me. He invaded my personal space. He kept asking the same questions over and over again. As each hour passed, my fear increased.

He said to me, “What do you mean you didn’t do it? You just told me through the test result that you did. We just want you to confirm it verbally.”

That’s when my 16-year-old self really felt terrified.

One of the cops who seemingly befriended me told me that if I told them what they wanted to hear, I would not be arrested and be able to go home. Being young, naive, frightened, and not thinking about the long-term consequences, I made up a story based on the information that they had given me in the course of the seven-hour interrogation.

I falsely confessed to rape and murder.

Then, I collapsed on the floor in a fetal position, crying uncontrollably. I was arrested and charged.

At the trial, I had a public defender who rarely met with me and didn’t allow me to testify. Although the DNA found in the victim’s body didn’t match mine, I was convicted based solely on my confession.

When they read the guilty verdict, I was 17 years old and completely stunned. I thought that only guilty people were convicted. Tried as an adult, I was sentenced to 15 years to life and sent to a maximum-security prison. 

Prison was hell, especially as a convicted sex offender.  Even so, for many years, I was able to hold on to hope.

For the first 11 years, I focused on my appeals. I always thought I only had a year or two more in prison. I kept telling myself I only had to make it to the next appeal, where I would for sure regain my freedom because, after all, I was innocent.

However, I lost seven appeals. After your appeals are over, the only way back in a courtroom is if you can find some new evidence. So, I started writing letters, trying to find somebody who would help me pro bono. Those letters got me through the next four years. But when nothing panned out, I started seeing the parole board as a way of regaining my freedom. That’s why after they denied me, I nearly lost all hope. I nearly quit. I almost gave up because I couldn’t see any other way to get out of prison. 

Jeffrey at sentencing

But thankfully, I did find the strength to keep going. I did find a way to hold on to hope.

Sure enough, after I was denied parole, I received a response from a letter I wrote the year prior. Ultimately, an investigator connected me to the Innocence Project. They took my case. A new district attorney allowed us to conduct further DNA testing and enter it in the New York State DNA databank of convicted felons. The DNA matched Steven Cunningham, a man already in prison for another murder he committed after I went to jail. When confronted with the DNA evidence, he confessed to the crime – he admitted to killing my classmate.

After 16 years in prison, I went back to court, and they dismissed all the charges against me. I was 32 years old.

When I was finally let out, all I could think to myself was, “Is this really happening? Has this day finally come?”

When I was finally let out, all I could think to myself was, “Is this really happening? Has this day finally come?”

It felt surreal. But there were still many challenges ahead.

I felt like I was in a parallel world. The technology was different. The culture was different. Cities and neighborhoods looked different. Also, there was a stigma associated with being in prison. Even though I was wrongfully there, people were scared of me. Plus, since I went to prison so young, I never had a job. I never lived on my own, and I didn’t have a driver’s license. Finding work became exceedingly difficult, and I nearly ended up homeless.

Ultimately, with the help of a dean at Mercy College, I finished my bachelor’s degree. The school gave me a scholarship, allowed me to live on campus, and gave me a meal plan. After I graduated, I applied to law school and I got rejected. So, Instead, I took out a loan and pursued a master’s degree in criminal justice.  

Then, I sued all the parties involved in my wrongful conviction, and I won. I won big. From two lawsuits (and a total of five defendants), I received about 24 million dollars before lawyers’ fees.

The money certainly was not worth all the time I lost, as I missed births, deaths, weddings, and rites of passage. I would have much rather had a normal life. But I decided when I left prison, I would not live my life bitter. I want to enjoy my life as much as I can. So, I channel my anger and hurt into advocacy.

With some of the money that I won in the lawsuits, I created the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation. We free wrongfully convicted people, and we pursue policy changes aimed at preventing more wrongful convictions. So far, we’ve helped bring home 11 people who were wrongfully convicted.

I am also an advisory board member for a bigger coalition called It Can Happen To You. We have passed five laws with the coalition. However, a few years ago I became unsatisfied with sitting in the front row of the courtroom. I wanted to sit at the table, represent clients and make some of the arguments. Again, I decided to apply to law school.

While I scored poorly on the LSATS, I got an interview at Pace University and knocked it out of the park. Six years after I started my foundation I went to law school. In 2019, I graduated, and passed the bar on the first try. Now, I work 50 to 60 hours as a lawyer and advocate. I’m able to do so pro bono, thanks to my settlements.

Jeffrey graduating Pace Law School

I found my purpose in the world, which has provided me with some acceptance and inner peace. Helping others facing similar circumstances that I once did has allowed me to heal. It’s given my journey meaning, as I am making a difference in the world. 

But I would have never gotten here if I let go of hope.

When you have a lofty goal in life, you need a realistic plan. But you also need to be flexible with that plan. Remember that the goal is the goal. The plan is not the goal.  Also, you must work hard. And when you think you can’t go any further like I did when I was denied parole, you have to tell yourself that the key moment could be right around the corner. If you quit, if you stop now, you will never know what’s on the other side.

Hope is what will keep you going. Hope is what will stop you from harming yourself. Hope is what will fuel you to fight.

Hope is the reason I am here. 

So, even if you can’t see where your breakthrough is coming from, take it from me;  it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

There is always hope. 

Keep believing, stay strong and when you make it through, don’t forget to use your hope to help someone else. 

Jeffrey Deskovic
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One thought on “How hope helped me survive 16 years of wrongful imprisonment

  1. What an amazing story! There’s so many twists and turns to what happened to him and then what he did for himself and for others. Thankfully thanks to technology that the true criminal was attached to the loss of this young lady’s life. I feel when your telling the truth and someone doesn’t believe you it can be one of the worst feelings in the world but I can’t imagine having that feeling from inside a prison. Jeffrey, thank you for not giving up hope and absolutely excelling afterwards.

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