July 9, 2007

Report provides blueprint for reducing wrongful convictions

Jeffrey Deskovic was 16 when he confessed to raping and murdering a classmate. He spent the next 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Now, the District Attorney’s Office has released an independent review of the case that provides a blueprint of what goes wrong in false confession cases, and how to fix the problems.

The case against Deskovic was built on his own statements, most of them unrecorded. No eyewitnesses or physical evidence connected him to the crime. Indeed, seminal fluid and hairs found in and on the victim’s body “definitely excluded” him.

Over the years, Deskovic exhausted all of his state and federal appeals. But he did not give up trying to prove his innocence. Finally, the Innocence Project took his case. The DNA found on the victim was matched to a man serving life for another murder. That man subsequently confessed and pleaded guilty. Deskovic was released last November.

The independent review was commissioned by the D.A.’s office and prepared by two retired judges, a former district attorney, and a criminal defense attorney. It highlights the following structural errors, many of them common in wrongful confession cases:

Over-reliance on offender “profiling”: Police obtained an offender “profile” that proved inaccurate in almost every way, but which fit Deskovic.

Tunnel vision: Partly because of the profile, police and prosecutors focused unduly on Deskovic. Taking advantage of his youth, naivete, and psychological vulnerabilitites, they hammered at the 16-year-old until he confessed. As is common in these types of cases, they failed to adequately investigate other theories of the crime or other potential suspects.

Failure to record statements: Police only selectively recorded the series of statements that they took from Deskovic over a period of days. In one of several interviews, they recorded only 30 minutes out of four hours. On the day he confessed, nothing was recorded. Prosecutors told the jury that Deskovic knew details of the crime that only the killer could know. Given his innocence, it is likely that police – either deliberately or inadvertently – communicated that information to him during the questioning.

Downplaying of physical evidence: Police ignored the fact that no physical evidence tied Deskovic to the crime. At trial, the prosecutor presented “strained and shifting theories” to explain away the DNA evidence.

Defense failures: The defense failed to present evidence about false confessions, such as why someone might confess due to their psychological vulnerabilities, or the rates of such confessions. The defense also did not adequately confront the lack of scientific evidence against their client, which should have been the “centerpiece” of their case.

The task force strongly recommended that police videotape the entirety of all interrogations in felony cases. In addition, they recommended honoring defendants’ post-conviction requests for DNA matching. It was not until a new chief prosecutor was appointed in Westchester County that Deskovic’s repeated requests were finally granted, leading to his exoneration.

The report is available at the Westchester District Attorney’s website.

The Innocence Project's profile of Deskovic is also available online.

Hat tip to Jane for alerting me to this report.