innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Jeffrey Deskovic is the New Face of the Death Penalty Debate

This article appeared in New York's Journal News on September 25, 2006:

Jeffrey Deskovic is the new face of the death penalty debate

When you hear that a man was in prison for 16 years for a murder he didn't commit, you can't help but think, "What if he had been executed?"

You watch him give his first news conference, his slight frame under a dark blue suit, and picture him on a gurney.

He wouldn't be here asking the reporters to identify themselves the way it's done on TV. He wouldn't be talking about having mussels and baked ziti for lunch.

When Jeffrey Deskovic was released in White Plains last week, he became the 184th man freed by the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School devoted to overturning wrongful convictions through DNA testing. Deskovic is the newest face in the death penalty debate.

The justice system has made a lot of mistakes. More precisely, we the jury have made a lot of mistakes, because that is who decides guilt or innocence. Ordinary people like you or me convicted Deskovic.

New York has the death penalty. It was re-enacted in 1995 after Gov. George Pataki campaigned for bringing it back.

In the years before the U.S. Supreme Court halted executions in this country, 1,130 inmates were put to death in New York state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. If anyone was ever confident that each one was guilty, it's hard to be sure now. What if the Innocence Project had been in business then? How many of those people would have been freed?

In the 11 years since New York reinstated the death penalty, no one has been executed. In fact, the state's highest court ruled the punishment unconstitutional two years ago, and so far lawmakers have not addressed its objections.

To be very clear: Deskovic was imprisoned before the death penalty was reinstated. His punishment was 15 years to life. His crime, though, was the kind that could have qualified.
Deskovic was charged with rape and murder. The body of his classmate, Angela Correa, was found near Griffin's Pond in Peekskill two days after her family reported the 15-year-old missing. She had last been seen taking photographs for a class.

Looking back, you can wonder how Deskovic was convicted. The hair and semen found on Correa were not his. His confession came after he was in police custody for nine hours without his parents or an attorney and without any food, according to the Innocence Project; at the end, he curled up under a desk in a fetal position and sobbed. He seemingly was an impressionable young man, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, eager to help. He confessed because that was what the police wanted to hear, he says now.

Obviously the jurors were wrong when they found him guilty, but who can say that they would not have been swayed by the detectives' testimony or the assistant district attorney's arguments? Why would Deskovic confess to a crime he didn't commit, you might ask. Even if you know that false confessions occur, it's still hard to grasp.

Yet, according to the Innocence Project, about 25 percent of the wrongful convictions it has overturned involved some kind of false confession. People make them when they are afraid or subjected to force or devious interrogation techniques, the Innocence Project says. They might be exhausted, hungry, drunk or high, have limited mental abilities or limited education.

To guard against this, the Innocence Project recommends interrogations be recorded electronically — the entire interrogation, from a Miranda warning through to a confession.
In a way, Deskovic is luckier than many others who have been exonerated. A new DNA test found a match: an inmate already serving time for murder who, according to the Westchester District Attorney's Office, confessed to Correa's killing.

You can argue that as DNA technology gets more and more sophisticated and reliable, fewer innocent men and women will be imprisoned. And you can make an argument in favor of the death penalty. If DNA can exonerate, it can make guilt more certain too.

But here's something to consider. Last year, according to the Innocence Project, a report conducted by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directions found that the Virginia State Crime Lab had committed serious testing errors in the case of a man who spent years on death row. Not only that, but the laboratory's system for finding mistakes also failed. Yes, testing will become more foolproof, but nothing is ever infallible when human beings are involved.

"New York's death penalty is crafted carefully so that only the most inhuman murderers are eligible for it," Pataki wrote in USA Today in 1997 in support of his position.

Deskovic was the fifth man freed in New York in the last 10 months who was convicted based on a false confession and whose guilt was overturned by DNA evidence. Safeguards can only go so far.

The death penalty may be an issue that you decide in your gut and then look for arguments to back your belief.

False confessions, mistaken identifications, bad lawyers, crooked cops, racial discrimination — all of those are factors if you oppose the death penalty. You look at people like Deskovic and other instances where justice went horribly wrong.

If you are in favor of the death penalty, you probably focus on the most gruesome crimes, the ones that are so cruel and terrible that they are impossible to comprehend. It is difficult to think of reasons for those criminals to be alive.

But in the end it comes down to whether you believe the government should put someone to death, and I don't. We should not give government that kind of power. Life in prison without parole, but not death.

As the group New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty wrote in a news release after Deskovic's release: "The death penalty is a system which buries its worst mistakes."

Human beings seek revenge. I might want revenge. But the state should not be in the business of killing.

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