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Story of Wrongfully Convicted Prisoner Denied Appeal by Sotomayor Excluded from Confirmation Hearings

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We speak to Jeffrey Deskovic, a wrongfully convicted prisoner who spent sixteen years in prison until DNA evidence proved his innocence. In 1997, nine years before his eventual release, he appealed his conviction to Judge Sonia Sotomayor and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The court dismissed his appeal without even considering his innocence claim, in part because of a technicality — paperwork from his lawyer had arrived at the courthouse four days late. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with a former prisoner who once appeared before Judge Sonia Sotomayor in court. His name is Jeffrey Deskovic. At the age of seventeen, he was wrongfully convicted of murder and rape. He spent sixteen years in prison, until DNA evidence proved his innocence.

In 1997, nine years before his eventual release, he appealed his conviction to Judge Sonia Sotomayor and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The court dismissed his appeal without even considering his innocence claim, in part because of a technicality: paperwork from his lawyer had arrived at the courthouse four days late.

Jeffrey Deskovic joins us now in our firehouse studio. He recently wrote about Sotomayor for Alternet.org. The piece is called “Judge Sonia Sotomayor Denied My Appeal and I Spent 16 Years in Prison for a Crime I Didn’t Commit.”

Jeffrey, welcome to Democracy Now!

JEFFREY DESKOVIC: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell your story. What was your reaction when you heard Judge Sotomayor was nominated to be the Supreme Court justice?

JEFFREY DESKOVIC: Instantly, I recognized the name. I mean, I wanted to double-check on the paperwork. From there, I immediately thought about other people who would be similarly situated as I was, wrongfully convicted, whose case Judge Sotomayor would have a direct role in. I was concerned for them. I had a brief flashback of what putting procedure over innocence meant for me, in terms of remaining incarcerated, missing births, deaths, weddings, the natural course of life, and just the general horror of prison. And I immediately thought that we’re really being sold a bill of goods here. Judge Sotomayor is not empathetic. If there was, there would be no — if she was, there would be no way you could square that with her ruling.

I would just like to clarify that when I filed in federal court, that was in the court just below hers. The court clerk gave my attorney inaccurate information regarding the filing procedure, because the law was unclear at that point regarding the filing procedure, because the new law had been passed limiting state prisoners. The new law had been passed and it was not clear, limiting state prisoners — they would have one year to file in federal court after being denied by their state’s highest court.

And in that petition, I had a very strong argument of innocence: DNA showed that semen found in the victim didn’t match me. I was also arguing that the police had violated my Fifth Amendment rights by the manner that they had interrogated me when I was sixteen years old, which is how they managed to coerce the false confession out of me, which is the only evidence that they had. So, the court, at the urging of then-Westchester district attorney candidate Jeanine Pirro, they ruled that I was late without even looking at my issues.

I then appealed that ruling to Judge Sotomayor’s courtroom, which was in 1999. My attorney advanced three arguments as to why Judge Sotomayor should overturn the procedural ruling: the first is that to uphold such a ruling would be to perpetuate a miscarriage of justice, which of course ties back to my innocence argument and the DNA; the second is that reversing the procedural ruling would open the door to more sophisticated DNA testing; thirdly, that this was an error that was caused by the court clerk and not by myself and my attorney.

In her opinion, which Judge Sotomayor signed, she said that she was unpersuaded that my position was unique and that my petition had substantial merit or that it was caused by the court clerk. She was unpersuaded that those three things should trump the fact that my petition arrived four days late.

As a result of her ruling, I ultimately served six more years in prison wrongfully. Given that the US Supreme Court agrees to hear only a small percentage of cases that come in front of it, for all intents and purposes, that was my last appeal. When that decision came down, my lawyer moved to reargue the case in front of Judge Sotomayor and her colleague, Rosemary Pooler, and that, too, was denied, and the US Supreme Court did not grant me permission to appeal to them. That ruling, in effect, condemned me to serve a — continue to serve a life sentence for a crime that I was innocent of, that I had strong evidence that I was innocent and that I was arguing that.

Luckily for me, it only turned out to be an additional six years before further DNA testing not only reaffirmed my innocence, but identified the real perpetrator, who subsequently confessed and was sentenced for the crime.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, tomorrow you’re going to be at an event at St. Mary’s Church in Harlem on 126th Street along with the sister of Troy Davis. This is a case that is gaining tremendous attention. He is on death row right now. Talk briefly about why you’re there at his case and how his case now actually relates to Judge Sotomayor.

JEFFREY DESKOVIC: Well, I’ve dedicated my life to battling wrongful convictions. I recognize Troy’s case as being that of a wrongful conviction. Seven of nine witnesses recanted. There’s been four people that the alternative suspect has confessed to. There’s, you know, pretty much almost universal acknowledgment of that, except through the courts and the judges.

The similarity between Mr. Davis’s case and mine is that technicalities are preventing Mr. Davis from getting a ruling on the merits of his innocence. That ties into Judge Sotomayor, because that — the US Supreme Court has decided not to make a decision on his case until next term, and that means Judge Sotomayor —-

AMY GOODMAN: It has just been put off until next term?

JEFFREY DESKOVIC: Yes, so that means that Judge Sotomayor will have a vote, and a very important vote, in that case.

AMY GOODMAN: If she is confirmed as Supreme Court justice.

JEFFREY DESKOVIC: Right, if she’s confirmed. So my concern, in what I mentioned before, about other people wrongfully convicted, I don’t have confidence in Judge Sotomayor that she is committed to correcting wrongful convictions at every turn, wherever the facts and law indicates that that -— or that that should happen or that she’ll step in when a quality legal argument is advanced that a trial is unfair, which goes to the matter of whether the verdict was reliable or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jeffrey, how did you get the DNA test? How were you freed?

JEFFREY DESKOVIC: The Innocence Project agreed to take my case. They work to clear prisoners across the country where DNA testing can establish innocence. I was cleared because they stepped in. They took my case. They persuaded the local district attorney in Westchester to allow me to have the more sophisticated testing. They compared the DNA which didn’t match me to the database, and it matched the real perpetrator. Again, it’s really flukish, which is all the more serious as to what the judge’s ruling was. I mean, if he had not committed an unrelated crime, then his DNA wouldn’t have been in the database, and I still would have been in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: When were you released?

JEFFREY DESKOVIC: I was released September 20th, 2006.

I would like to add that politics has trumped justice, because I’ve been in numerous contact with the Senate Judiciary Committee, both the minority and the majority. I’ve sent them the decisions of Judge Sotomayor in my case. I expressed that I wanted to testify about the human impact of putting procedure over innocence and how that affected me and my family, wrongful convictions, in general. And basically, I got the runaround. And I’ve been in further contact with Senator Sessions’ office, Senator Leahy’s office, after the witness list came out and it was obvious I had been omitted. And I —-

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

JEFFREY DESKOVIC: I requested them to add me, and both offices gave me the -— will not do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeffrey Deskovic, I want to thank you very much for being with us. And we will link to your article about your own experience at democracynow.org. He’ll be at St. Mary’s in Harlem on Wednesday night.

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