Tarrytown resident Jeffrey Deskovic wants you to know he’s articulate, educated, and mentally stable — not the withdrawn, shabby-looking person in a T-shirt portrayed on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times on Nov.
What’s so special about Deskovic, 34, that warranted above-the-fold coverage in the Old Gray Lady? The overly-gracious man in business attire who hopped out of a cab in front of the Eldorado West Diner last Thursday spent nearly half his life in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit.
He was exonerated by DNA evidence in September 2006, and in May, the real perpetrator was convicted. Deskovic is already a quasi-celebrity. His story has been in The Journal News “God knows how many times” and he’s appeared on NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN among other broadcasters.
As Deskovic entered the restaurant, he courteously responded to the hostess as she seated him at a booth near the entrance. After he ordered a roast beef meal from the dinner menu, complete with salad, mashed potatoes and gravy, he gave his P.R. man, Darren Wilkins, a call and placed him on speaker phone for a brief conversation.
Then — down to business. In order to forgo an in-depth conversation on his background, Deskovic confirmed that a majority of The New York Times article was factually correct. However, Angela Correa, the murder victim who was a classmate from his hometown in Peekskill, never helped Deskovic in algebra, as the Times published.
On Nov. 15, 1989, according to the report, Correa went to a local park, and two days later, her naked body was found in the woods. Deskovic’s DNA did not match hair and semen samples, but he fit the description from a criminal profiler, and investigators were suspicious when he cried a lot at the funeral even though the two weren’t close.
Deskovic told the Times that he was picked on in school, and Correa was one of the few students who was nice to him. Over the two months following her murder, Deskovic, age 16, was repeatedly questioned by police. At the end of one intense seven-hour questioning, he told the Times he was tired, confused, scared, and hungry, and police promised that if he confessed, he would receive psychiatric treatment rather than go to jail.
After languishing for 16 years in prison, the Innocence Project picked up his case, and with DNA evidence matching a crack-user on file, he was exonerated.
So, where does a 34-year-old man go from there? While in prison, Deskovic earned his G.E.D. and took enough college courses offered through the prison that he was only 30 credits short of a bachelor’s degree in behavioral sciences. The last 30 credits were offered tuition-free from Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry.
Deskovic took exception to the Times’ supposed portrayal of his life becoming a success story. "I’m not ‘making it’," he said at the diner. "I’m still living week to week."
Also, unlike the Times’ portrayal, he said he”s capable of holding full-time employment, but he doesn’t want to work minimum wage. And even though he’s 34, he said he feels like he’s in his mid 20s, and feels like he has a lot of catching up to do.
That’s one of the reasons why he moved to Tarrytown. "I got the feeling Tarrytown was a hip, upbeat, energetic town," Deskovic said. He also said that he visited his grandmother frequently when she lived on South Washington Street. His grandmother died while he was in prison, and he wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.
A few people in town have reached out to him since his arrival — including Michael Collins, a retired neighbor. "He read my story through the Journal News and he was moved," Deskovic said. Collins helped Deskovic learn how to drive and helped him get furniture for his attic apartment, which is five minutes walking distance into the heart of town.
Also, the professionals at Buyer’s Edge Realty in Tarrytown were very helpful to him in his transition. He was able to obtain his apartment through the assistance of Westchester County because of his disability — he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When he was first released from prison, he frequently suffered from panic attacks.
Other than that, Deskovic was released with nothing, including no health insurance. A couple days before the interview, Deskovic’s car broke down. He pointed out that the state would have provided him with more assistance had he never been exonerated and simply released on parole.
At another point in The New York Times article, Deskovic was described as an overgrown adolescent who stamped his feet at a food kiosk in New York City when he was asked to choose between two ingredients in his smoothie. Deskovic explained that it wasn’t because he was being childish. Rather, it’s because prison guards made every decision for him for 16 years, so the smallest decisions can invoke extreme frustration. He also has a hard time figuring out all the functions on his cellular phone, navigating the Internet, and making personal connections with people he meets at different social gatherings.
But Deskovic has also accomplished a lot in a short time. He writes columns for The Westchester Guardian, a weekly newspaper in the area. In a few weeks, he will graduate from Mercy and he must now decided between Pace University School of Law in White Plains or Cardozo School of Law in New York City.
What kind of law does he want to practice? "Post-conviction exoneration, of course," he said. “What else?”" He also frequently travels to Albany to lobby the state to change its laws and he speaks to various groups in a budding lecture circuit. "I’d love to do a presentation here in Tarrytown," he said. Deskovic said he is against the death penalty, and had he been convicted when he was 18 years old, he wouldn’t have lived long enough to be exonerated. Long term, Deskovic wants to go into politics.
After talking for a while, the reporter admitted his apprehension meeting Deskovic, and asked him whether some people are afraid of him. “There are some people who are afraid of me,” he said. “[They think to themselves] you were innocent, but you were still in prison for 16 years. I think they would be pleasantly surprised.”
Deskovic said that while he was aware of prison culture in order to survive, he never adopted those values as his own.
Does he have a message for residents? “Despite the impression that The New York Times gave, I’m a very friendly people-person, educated, and my heart is in the right place.” He also said residents should feel free to say hello to him if they see him on the street.
He also urges residents to understand that wrongful convictions can happen to anyone. And he’d like people to visit his Web site at jeffreydeskovicspeaks.org. There, residents can read more about him, sign his petition, and offer donations to his cause.