Thursday, July 26, 2007

Gues Shot: Tunnel Vision

The following editorial was originally published in the New York Times on July 15, 2007.

Everyone knew Jeffrey Deskovic was guilty.
Everyone was wrong, but that did not prevent his being convicted in 1990 for the murder of a 15-year-old classmate, and his being wrongfully imprisoned for the next 16 years.

A report released this month by the Westchester district attorney, Janet DiFiore, details the tragic pileup of mistakes, carelessness, incompetence and ''tunnel vision'' that robbed Mr. Deskovic, now 33, of half his life. A reading of the report, available at, gives a chilling view of the horrible and multiple ways the justice system can malfunction.

It prompts respect for the Innocence Project, which fought for Mr. Deskovic's freedom, and admiration for Ms. DiFiore, who undid the wrongs of two predecessors with her willingness to examine the DNA evidence that exonerated Mr. Deskovic. Ms. DiFiore also deserves much credit for commissioning the report, prepared by two retired judges, a former prosecutor and a legal aid lawyer, whose analysis of this case is vividly clear and deeply unsettling.

The report could be a primer for the Legislature, which should seriously consider the recommendations when it reconvenes this month.

The list of misdeeds is long, but one common thread is what the report called ''tunnel vision,'' the narrowing of outlook that sealed Mr. Deskovic's fate once the powers that be, from the police to prosecutors, became convinced that he was guilty.

Perhaps the most distressing part of Mr. Deskovic's long battle for vindication was his repeated inability to persuade prosecutors to compare DNA from the crime scene with samples in state and federal databases.

The judge in the case praised Ms. DiFiore's office for its open-mindedness in granting Mr. Deskovic's simple request to honor what should be a defendant's basic right. The other central recommendations in the report include a requirement to videotape interrogations and the creation of a state ''commission of inquiry'' to examine the errors and misdeeds that lead to wrongful convictions, and to recommend steps to prevent them.

The mandatory videotaping of interrogations is a matter of particular importance. Mr. Deskovic was an emotionally vulnerable and confused suspect, a teenager at that, and under heavy pressure he falsely confessed to the crime. Taped interrogations would help to improve questioning tactics -- beyond discouraging outright abuses by overaggressive police officers -- and help jurors to identify false confessions.

There is one more recommendation for action that is implicit in the report. It would not come from Albany, but from the host of individuals -- from detectives to Ms. DiFiore's immediate predecessors -- who were active participants in a gross miscarriage of justice.

The report recounts the moment last November when Westchester's first deputy district attorney told the court that the case was being dropped because Mr. Deskovic was ''actually innocent.'' The prosecutor went on to offer ''the most sincere apologies we can muster on behalf of the Westchester County District Attorney's Office and the Peekskill police.''

The report said that Mr. Deskovic expressed appreciation for the gesture. It also said it was the first public apology he had received.

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