The Innocence Club Highlights the Need for Criminal Justice Reform

Club2Jeff Deskovic addresses the Innocence ClubA visit to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama spurred SHS student Scott Goldban to do more than feel badly about the many who are wrongfully convicted and spend years behind bars. The experience spurred Goldban’s interest in criminal justice reform and the creation of The Innocence Club at Scarsdale High School in 2018.

The mission of the club is to educate other students by bringing speakers to the school. The group invites both exonerees and legal experts and has hosted sessions with Glen Garber, founder of The Exoneration Initiative and a Skype session with Professor Sarah Sommervold who discussed her work with the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. The club recently completed a book drive, collecting approximately 6,000 books for the Voice 4 The Unheard, an organization that distributes used books to prisons to help promote literacy. Most of these books are going to Rikers Island. The club has now grown to 100 members and includes Levi Ring (VP), Carrie Ortner (Communications), Ben Hoexter (Secretary) and Ryan Silberfein (Treasurer). Faculty advisors are Andrew Morgan and Beth Colleary.

On February 5, 2020 The Innocence Club hosted Jeffrey Deskovic, a man who was falsely convicted for rape and murder and spent 17 years in prison, to speak about his experience and how he turned his life around after exoneration. In addition, Mimi Rocah, candidate for Westchester County DA, spoke about the integrity in the criminal justice system.

Deskovic shared the story of his wrongful conviction. When he was 16 years-old, he was targeted by police in Peekskill for the rape and murder of a 15 year-old classmate. Deskovic explained that because he was shy and didn’t fit in with his classmates, he fit a psychological profile that led police detectives to target him. He said that he was naive and wanted to be a police officer when he grew up, so that when they police told him that they wanted him to help them in their investigation and lead them to the killer, he obliged. He skipped school one day to assist them and described how they drove him to an undisclosed location approximately 40 minutes away and hooked him up to a polygraph machine and proceeded to forcibly interrogate him for six hours.

No one knew where he was or how to find him. His mother was not informed of his whereabouts and he feared for his life. He was not provided with a lawyer. When police told him that he would never be found unless he confessed to the crime, he did. He was thinking only about how to get himself home safely -- not the long-term consequences of a confession.

Using this confession, the district attorney was able to get a conviction even though the DNA evidence collected from semen found in the body of the victim did not match Deskovic’s DNA. The medical examiner falsely testified that the mismatch in DNA was explained by the victim’s prior sexual contact even though they had no evidence of a prior contact. Deskovic spent 17 years in prison trying secure a reversal on appeal or a new trial. It was only after the real killer killed someone else and his DNA was recorded in a database and found to match that obtained in the Deskovic case, that Deskovic was able to be freed.

InnocenceClubThe Innocence Club
Deskovic is thankful to the lawyers at the Innocence Project who took his case. Deskovic noted that his is not an isolated case. While he was in jail, he personally knew 17 other inmates who were eventually exonerated. Deskovic had a horrific experience in a maximum security adult prison, was attacked, and had to battle depression and thoughts of suicide. While in prison, Deskovic got his GED, and after his exoneration, he was given a scholarship to attend Mercy College, and then put himself through law school at Pace, where Mimi Rocah was one of his law professors. He now has his own Foundation (Deskovic Foundation) which works to help exonerate others. Deskovic offered thoughts on criminal justice reforms that could help decrease wrongful convictions including his advocacy of mandatory continuous video camera recordings during interrogations to deter police misconduct, and an oversight body to review prosecutor conduct.

Mimi Rocah, current Democratic candidate for Westchester County DA, agreed that certain reforms should be made in the criminal justice system. As a former prosecutor, she recognizes that there are cases where there are bad actors on the prosecution’s side. She said, believes here is no bad intent but professionals get “tunnel vision” where they are so focused on a suspect that they fail to recognize red flags that could suggest innocence. Rocah favors an open door policy for defense attorneys to discuss their evidence with prosecutors and noted that prosecutors should pay attention when defense attorneys say that their client is innocent. If elected DA, Rocah plans to create an Independent Conviction Integrity Unit to review cases where convicted inmates allege their innocence. This is especially crucial in cases that involve a bad actor identified in a case where a defendant was falsely convicted.