Cold, hard cash gives ex-prisoner a purpose

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

With the financial windfall from two lawsuits stemming from his 16 years’ prison time for a rape and murder he didn’t commit, Jeffrey Deskovic has created a foundation to help others in his shoes.

It’s not exactly like winning the lottery.

Jeffrey Deskovic’s fortune, a $9 million windfall (minus lawyers’ fees), came because he spent nearly 16 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Deskovic was released from a New York state prison in 2006, thanks in large part to the efforts of Mancos resident Claudia Whitman. The DNA at the 1990 crime scene did not match Deskovic. In 2006, the DNA evidence was re-examined, and, in a cross-check of a DNA bank, the true killer of 15-year-old Angela Correa, Deskovic’s high school classmate, was revealed.

This column featured Deskovic and Whitman in 2007. While I tend to wish my subjects well, I don’t always follow up on their lives. In this case, Deskovic called me.

He’s looking to get the word out about what he’s doing with his life. It’s been a struggle, he says, to re-enter society. Imagine entering prison at age 17 and suddenly being freed at 32. When do you learn to be an adult?

Deskovic, at first, felt detached from the world around him. He suffered anxiety attacks. It was too much at once, figuring out how to deal with new technology, how to earn a living, how to make friends. Little by little, he’s learned to cope.

“My mind is much clearer than before,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his office on West 72nd Street in Manhattan.

What the 38-year-old is doing with his life is this:

He took about $1.5 million from the money he was awarded in two court cases and started the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice. The nonprofit foundation, launched in March, has four components:

Promoting public awareness of wrongful imprisonment and related issues, urging legislation to reform the system, exonerating innocent prisoners and reintegrating ex-prisoners into society.

The foundation has a legal division, an investigator, an office manager and an assistant director. Then there’s Deskovic himself, a powerful speaker who travels as far as California to bring attention to the issues and the foundation, said assistant director Richard Blassberg. In all there are five staff members and four interns.

For an office, the foundation took a former beauty salon and rebuilt it “from the ground up.” It’s a quick walk to Central Park, and, a tidbit for curious Beatles fans, it’s about a block from The Dakota, where John Lennon lived and was murdered in 1980.

In 2011, Deskovic was granted $1.85 million from New York state for wrongful imprisonment. Also that year, he got $6.5 million in a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Westchester County, N.Y.

“He could have taken that money and bought, you know, a large sailboat,” Whitman said in a recent phone interview. “I do think he already is helping other people. ... Of all the exonerees I know of, he’s the only one who has gotten a huge chunk of money and has set up a foundation.”

During Deskovic’s prison stay, he held on tightly to any connections who might help his cause. He clung to the hope of having the DNA re-examined. Whitman became his savior. She persuaded the nonprofit Innocence Project, which had turned down Deskovic once, to take another look at his case. The Innocence Project, best known for helping wrongfully convicted prisoners through DNA evidence, managed to get the courts to give Deskovic’s case another look.

He was released from prison Sept. 20, 2006.

Whitman concurred that Deskovic is a very good public speaker. And he has a gripping story.

“Nobody can tell it better than somebody who’s been through it,” Whitman said.

Deskovic recently made a donation to Whitman’s nonprofit, the National Death Row Assistance Network. Whitman also works with the Grassroots Investigation Project, which she created in 2000.

“I could go on a never-ending vacation,” said Deskovic, who earned a degree from Mercy College after being freed and is nearing a master’s in criminal justice from John Jay College.

But he had trouble forgetting the people he’d left behind, the others who are innocently jailed. The foundation received 500 applications last year from prisoners around the country and has 20 active cases, Blassberg said.

Although the two settlements made Deskovic a multimillionaire, with at least one more lawsuit pending, to give up 16 years for that financial bonanza is still a bad deal, he said.

“I would give all the money back. But I can’t rewind it all,” he said.

Instead, he’s moving forward as best he can. The foundation still needs to prove itself, and will need continued support to survive, but he’s proud to have given it “a nice running start.”

He’s relieved and excited to have a purpose.

“I want to make what happened count for something,” Deskovic said. “It would be my dream to help clear somebody. I live for that moment.”

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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