“Race Leashes Its Ugly Head When It Comes To Sentencing Decisions On The Part Of Judges.”

Jeffrey Descovic advocates for the reform of the criminal justice system through his organization, the Jeffrey Descovic Foundation for Justice.

A few weeks ago, we had the chance to talk to James Smith, brother of Jerome ‘Skee’ Smith, who was wrongfully convicted of murder at the age of fifteen and sentenced to life without parole. We have followed that up with our exclusive interview with Jeffrey Descovic. He was convicted in 1990 of the rape and murder of Angela Correa, a fifteen-year-old classmate. Although DNA evidence retrieved from the crime scene did not match Descovic’s, he was imprisoned solely based on an alleged confession which had actually been forced out of him by dubious cops. He was lied to and subjected to several scare tactics by these cops who had been tasked with extracting a confession from him at all costs. However, on September 20, 2006, after serving fifteen years in jail, Descovic got his conviction overturned after a more comprehensive DNA test proved that semen from the crime scene actually belonged to one Steven Cunningham, who was in jail for another murder. In October 2014, Jeffrey Descovic was awarded $41 million by a federal jury in a civil rights lawsuit against Putham County. He used $1.5 million of his compensation to set up the Jeffrey Descovic Foundation for Justice to fight for reforms in the criminal justice system and to help exonerate several wrongfully convicted people across the U.S.

blackmattersus.com
Can you please tell us about yourself and the Jeffrey Descovic Foundation for Justice?
Jeffrey Descovic
Yes. I was in prison in New York from age seventeen to thirty-two. I was arrested when I was sixteen years old for a murder and rape which I did not commit. So I was wrongfully convicted of the crime through a coerced false confession, prosecutorial misconduct, fraud by the medical examiner, and my public defender was terrible. I lost the trial even though the DNA excluded me. I lost all seven of my appeals, I got turned down for parole. Ultimately, I was exonerated through further DNA evidence ten years ago which not only did not match me reaffirming the earlier test results, but it matched the actual perpetrator who had killed a second victim three and a half years later after killing the victim in my case. In terms of the Descovic Foundation, let me say that when I was released, I became an advocate, so I did around 100 presentations between then and now on wrongful convictions across the country and sometimes internationally. I was a columnist for five years so I have more than 200 articles that have been published in different publications. I’ve done a lot of media interviews and I’ve also met with elected officials and testified in legislative hearings when legislation was considered which pertained to wrongful conviction prevention and capital punishment. After being an individual advocate for about five years, I was able to win some financial compensation and I started the Jeffrey Descovic Foundation for Justice which frees wrongfully convicted people. We fight wrongful convictions through raising awareness and seeking changes of the law. We have a support staff and an exonerative component which works to exonerate people both in DNA and non-DNA cases. I’ve committed a million and a half dollars from my own money which I was awarded to start the organization. 
blackmattersus.com
What distinguishes the Jeffrey Descovic Foundation for Justice from other groups fighting wrongful convictions across the country?
Jeffrey Descovic
What distinguishes us from similar missioned organizations is that we take on both DNA and non-DNA cases. Most of the organizations only take on DNA cases and that’s only in 5 – 12% of them. We also advocate certain policy positions that the other organizations privately agree with us on but are quiet about, and we work to exonerate people, but if they come up for parole prior to that, we send a letter to the parole board urging them to parole them on innocence grounds so that they can be free while the process of being exonerated is ongoing. In our four years we’ve exonerated two people. William Lopez who was in prison for twenty-three and a half years prior to us exonerating him in collaboration with his preexisting lawyers. We also exonerated William Haughey who recently was in for eight years and four months, and we also have convinced the parole board in three instances to release people.
blackmattersus.com
Could you elaborate more on the cases you’ve been working on?
Jeffrey Descovic
Sure! We have a couple more cases that we’re working on. One case where somebody was wrongfully convicted of rape and the victim has now recanted. She had testified that the crime happened at the daytime when it actually happened at night, and she told us that her mother was the one who told her to lie to help cover things up. In terms of exonerating people, we have cases that we do in-house, but sometimes we have cases where we take on a different role. We work collaboratively at times also, so that might mean just doing some of the investigative work like in the Lopez case, other times it might be public relational level and getting people to turn out to show up in court. Other times we pitch cases to law firms because we can only do so many cases ourselves. But when we screen a case, we have lawyers that we send them to, and if those firms are convinced on the case then they take the case on pro bono themselves, and we just do some ongoing consultation. To give some specific examples, one of them is Andrew Krivak. We connected Mr. Krivak to some lawyers who have been doing the substantive legal work, and we have done some ongoing consultations. The same officer who gave me the polygraph and helped coerce the false confession out of me was involved in that case. An example of a case that we’re involved in strictly on the public relational level, just getting people to show up for court, in different events and rallies would be Lorenzo Johnson. He was released after sixteen and half years, and based on the federal court ruling that there was legally insufficient evidence, he was only home for four months and then the Pennsylvania Attorney General at the time, Kathleen Kane, appealed a reversal to the US Supreme Court so that they reinstated the conviction which resulted in my having to drive Mr. Johnson back to prison because he wanted to stay and fight and clear his name rather than go on the run. That case was a Pennsylvania case and would be more expensive to work on, so we’re doing some public relational work and we have rallies held on his behalf and we sometimes charter buses and we bring people to the court. Whether he’s having a court hearing or we’re doing a rally, we keep his case alive in the media as well as arrange for him to publish his own articles in the Huffington Post.
blackmattersus.com
Let’s talk about your time in jail. Did you meet any other people who were also wrongfully convicted like you?
Jeffrey Descovic
Yes. I met thirteen people who were exonerated before me or after me, they got thirty to sixty years. And one of the cases that we’re involved with now is Sammy Swift. He’s an example of somebody who was wrongfully convicted and is still in prison now. The one that I spent the most time with was Frank Sterling. We believed in each other’s innocence from the beginning and we kept each other going for about thirteen and a half years, and we promised that whoever got out first would try to help the other one even if it was just to raise awareness. So I got exonerated first, I kept in contact with him, I wrote about his case, I did things to get him some media attention, and then he was exonerated a few years ago, also by DNA, and we are still friends.
blackmattersus.com
What processes are involved once someone is wrongfully convicted? What steps does he need to go through to be able to prove his innocence?
Jeffrey Descovic
Well, you need to get quality legal representation. There are different levels of fighting a wrongful conviction case. First you have an appeal, so basically that involves lawyers arguing different points on law that the trial wasn’t fair or that constitutional rights were not observed, but you can also argue that you are innocent through arguing that there was legally insufficient evidence, or that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, or that the prosecution did not prove you guilty beyond reasonable doubt. It’s advisable for prisoners, and this is what I did. Go to the law library, be familiar with the law in the areas pertaining to your case and you can make suggestions, you can oversee what the lawyers are doing, you can give ideas. It’s very important to be proactive because many people who are wrongfully convicted, we got that way in the first place because we just sat back and trusted the lawyers. Again, when you argue your innocence which is really in the first court, it’s really just mainly points of law. So the way of trying to prove innocence outside of that is through what’s called post-conviction motion. The difference between post-conviction motion and appeal is, in post-conviction motion, you’re adding things to the record that are not already there. That means you have to find newly discovered evidence, enough to prove that you are actually innocent, meaning that you are not involved in the crime in any way. DNA is available as an option in 5 – 12 % of all serious felony cases, so if there is hair, semen, saliva, nails, article of clothing, blood, that can be subjected to DNA testing and if the testing does not match the defendant or even if it matches somebody else, then that is a way to prove your innocence. For most people, that is not an option, so you have to do regular investigative work. If there was an alternative suspect, you would investigate them, your investigator could look for a similar crime in a nearby area, he could re-interview the witnesses to see if their testimonies were valid, or if people got benefits in exchange for testimony. Also, he could review all the police reports to see if there are any names of people whose names came up in the police investigation that the police did not interview.
blackmattersus.com
Why are there so many wrongful conviction cases here in the United States? What’s wrong with our justice system?
Jeffrey Descovic
What’s wrong with it is that there are systemic deficiencies in the justice system and the legislature seems to be hesitant to fix it. First and foremost, prosecutorial misconduct is a major factor, the prosecutors don’t have any oversight board. We need to have videotaped interrogations from beginning to end to prevent wrongful convictions through false confessions, we need better identification procedures, we need to stop convicting people based only on an informant, we should require the police to come up with at least one other piece of external evidence, because when people are looking to make a deal but they don’t have truthful information to trade on, they resort to falsely incriminating people and that’s been the cause of wrongful convictions in 15% of the cases. We need to preserve evidence. There’s no law that mandates that evidence be preserved, so if you are wrongfully convicted in a case where testing is an option, the obstacle is whether the evidence has been thrown out, destroyed or lost. 
blackmattersus.com
What do you think about the racial profiling of Black people during the investigation, trial and serving of their term?
Jeffrey Descovic
Well, there is no doubt about it that racism permeates the criminal justice system, not really in overt ways but in more subtle ways. In terms of wrongful convictions, I think that the bias on the part of the judge and the jury definitely can sway things. Typically, minorities have less political connections and less money and they are not able to afford quality representation most of the time, and so that helps set them up for wrongful conviction. I don’t think that the laws in general are enforced evenly and some of that goes to who the police look at for crimes. There is a good number if people wrongfully convicted that were previously only on the police radar through minor convictions. And so the police knowing them to be in the general area has led to police looking for them and ultimately framing them for cases that they are innocent of. In terms of the view inside the prison, there are much more minorities there than anything else. African Americans make up the majority of the prison population, Caucasians make up the lesser demographic. I think that race leashes its ugly head when it comes to sentencing decisions on the part of judges. I think that minorities are given much more time than whites are for similar crimes, I think that it definitely is a factor in terms of prosecutors’ decision on how much time they want to ask for or what type of plea bargain they offer. When you turn to capital punishment, certainly prosecutors are much more willing to seek the death penalty if the murder victim was white and especially if the defendant is Black, so I think that racism is a major factor that way.
blackmattersus.com
Do you think that public attention, marches, and rallies can help in seeking justice for innocent prisoners?
Jeffrey Descovic
Yeah, I think raising awareness about their cases, whether social media, regular media, petitions, marches, protests, demonstrations, filling up the courtrooms, all of these tactics can help in different ways. In the first instance, if somebody doesn’t have quality legal representation, then attaining confident legal counsel is the most important thing, and I think that bringing attention to a case through these different methods, sometimes, has been the key to how somebody wound up with a lawyer, an investigator, who then started working on the case and then adding people to team, and ultimately being exonerated. I think the attention around cases can help in another way. In some cases, tip lines have been set up where people can call in if they have information about a case, so in order for the tip line to work, the public has to know that it’s out there with the hope that somebody who knows something about the crime will call. It can also put their case on the radar. If somebody has a post-conviction proceeding in court, you definitely want to fill up the courtroom so that the judge can see that the person has public support and that people believe in their claim of innocence. It makes them conscious so that they know that they can’t just sweep this under the rug, they need to clearly and objectively consider the case and the issues it raises. It also helps the morale of the person inside who is fighting, to know that they have public support so it can be an encouragement for them to keep going, to keep fighting and not give in to thoughts of depression, hopelessness, suicide, feelings of wanting to quit. I suffered all these things too, so I know that having public support outside is the key to combating them.
blackmattersus.com
When you look at justice in the 60s and the 70s, you can see that there was a lot of racial profiling against people who were fighting in the civil rights movement. Why is it that with cases like the MOVE 9, Mumia Abu Jamal and other political prisoners, nobody is trying to work on their cases to prove their innocence?
Jeffrey Descovic
Two responses. Firstly, I do think there are people working on their cases, Mumia Abu Jamal has had a lot of representation. I think that that’s due to how high profile a case he made his case out to be. In some ways, there’s a strong pushback against him from Officer Faulkner’s family and advocates of the police, but I think that the public support and the high ‘profileness’ of his case is the reason why he has not been executed and why ultimately his death sentence got commuted. I think that the strong force against him is why he hasn’t been exonerated and released. But turning to different aspects of your question, I think that in the innocence community in general, there is hesitation to get involved in wrongful conviction cases involving political prisoners. It’s no secret that the government has sometimes on the state level or FBI through COINTELPRO, used wrongful conviction as a way of ‘neutralizing’ people that they feel were a threat, not in terms of violence but in terms of exposing things, in terms of organizing the citizenry to engage in grassroots efforts and that kind of thing. I think on one hand the political aspect of things becomes kind of a distraction. I think that the innocence entities, they are worried about some of the extreme ideologies, because some people are left of left, they’re like, “let’s overthrow the whole system.” That’s part of their beliefs, so the innocence entities are worried. Most of these organizations are dependent upon donations and so I think that there’s a fear that the transparence of that could lead to them not getting sufficient funding for their work. I think also there is a little bit of fear of retaliation on that aspect too, governmentally. Certainly the political prisoner cases are much harder to win, so in dealing with those entities that have limited resources, it’s a cold hard fact of life that in deciding whether to take a case on or not, there is the issue of how much time, human resources, how much money it is going to cost. The political cases have a tremendous cost to them and part of the issue also is how likely is it that we can win. Those cases are much more harder to win.
blackmattersus.com
How can our readers and the general public help in the tremendous work you are doing?
Jeffrey Descovic
We are hoping to get 25,000 people who are willing to donate either $3-$5 a month. These monthly donations will help us free more convicted people, and add staff.

The new campaign can be found on the Patreon website (please add the website) in which the foundation is hoping to seek regular donations. Even if you’re able to give as low as $3 a month, you’d be a big part in helping the foundation to fund a bigger staff like paralegals, administrative assistants, attorneys, investigators; or even basic needs like office space and supplies. With your help in this new campaign, the foundation has the potential to be better equipped to help exonerate those in need who do not have access to the necessary tools to prove their innocence.











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