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Wrongfully convicted man brings criminal justice message to Stetson Law students

Margie Manning

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Jeffrey Deskovic spoke at Stetson University College of Law on Oct. 7.

After Jeffrey Deskovic was awarded $41 million in a lawsuit stemming from his wrongful conviction on rape and murder charges, he wanted to take his justice advocacy to the next level.

Deskovic started the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, a nonprofit committed to exonerating those who had no involvement in the crimes for which they were convicted. The foundation has freed seven people and helped to change laws, Deskovic told students at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport earlier this month.

Deskovic urged the future attorneys to “go the extra mile” as they investigate the cases in which they will be involved.

“If you want to be a great lawyer, you have to be a great interviewer, a great fact investigator. Good investigation, great lawyer. Poor investigation, you’ve got nothing in the courtroom,” Deskovic said. “The same is true for people who are going to be prosecutors. Evaluate your case. Pretend that you are the judge. Look at the evidence, what are the red flags around your case. Re-interview witnesses and be sure. Don’t withhold anything.”

Deskovic was 17 when he was convicted of murdering a high school classmate in New York. He confessed after three lie detector tests which he said left him in fear for his life. He served 16 years in prison before he was exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project. Post-conviction DNA testing proved Deskovic was innocent, and identified the real perpetrator of the crime.

Stetson University College of Law, ranked No. 1 in trial advocacy by U.S. News and World Report, started its Innocence Initiative about six years ago and brings in exonerees to talk about wrongful convictions each semester, said Judith Scully, professor of law and coordinator of the social advocacy program, which co-sponsored Deskovic’s appearance with the Innocence Initiative, Phi Alpha Delta and the Public Service Fellows.

There’s a benefit to having an exoneree speak to students, said Noel Gonzalez, president of the Innocence Initiative. “You get to see in person the repercussions of a broken justice system and you can see it can happen to anyone,” Gonzalez said.

Deskovic said it was difficult to put his life back together after 16 years in prison.

“Not too many people questioned my innocence, although there was a small pocket of people that did. But the main aspect to the stigma was, ‘You were in prison for 16 years wrongfully, how much of that rubbed off on you? Is it safe to be alone someplace with you?’” Deskovic said. “I was never able to obtain gainful employment, I was always passed over. I didn’t understand the technology … Most of my family were different people now, as was I. I knew that nothing in their background would allow them to understand what I had been through.”

Since his release, Deskovic earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science, a master’s in criminal justice, and he graduated in May from Pace University Law School in New York. On Thursday, the New York State Board of Law Examiners announced Deskovic had passed the New York bar exam.

“A common question I get is whether I am angry. I want to enjoy my life as much as I can and I can’t do that if I’m angry or bitter,” he said. “I feel like I lost so much. I didn’t graduate high school. I didn’t participate in the prom. I didn’t finish my college education at a traditional age. I wasn’t far along in a career. I wasn’t married or had a family. I missed births, deaths, weddings, rites of passage. So I feel like having lost all that, why would I want to in effect give over the rest of my life? I take the energy I feel and I channel it into the advocacy work that I do.”

The Deskovic Foundation is one of about 125 organizations that have formed the It Could Happen To You coalition in New York, with similar new groups starting in Pennsylvania and California.

“The era of going it alone by nonprofits is pretty much over. That doesn’t work. Coming together to work on an agreed-upon set of legislative objectives, that does work,” Deskovic said.

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