N.Y. / REGION

Exonerated. Now What?

 

It had been a while since Jeffrey Deskovic hosted one of his weekday evening singalongs, so last month he made a few calls and brought some friends together at the Karaoke Cave, a noisy little bar on East 13th Street in Manhattan. At 6 p.m. the place was filled with young professionals sipping beers and shouting into microphones in an undemanding, if embarrassing, environment. But to Mr. Deskovic and the men who joined him, standing up in public and singing cheesy pop songs was more than an innocent release.

“Things like this are different for us — they’re almost therapeutic,” one of the men, William Lopez, said, when he and Mr. Deskovic finished their dissonant duet of an old Beastie Boys hit. “We’re not exactly family, but we relate to one another. It’s kind of like we get together for treatment or something, like we have the same disease.”

Jeffrey Deskovic, left, and William Lopez singing karaoke. Mr. Deskovic spent 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He started the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice for inmates who are exonerated, like Mr. Lopez. Credit Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

That disease was not a physical illness, but an emotional disorder of a sort, a lingering condition of dark disbelief arising from the fact that each of the four “singing it out,” in Mr. Deskovic’s phrase, had done a stint in prison for a crime he did not commit. In all, they had spent 63 years behind bars until, through their own perseverance and the efforts of their lawyers and their families, they were exonerated and freed.

William Lopez, with family members, in 1991. Mr. Lopez was convicted of a killing he did not commit and was freed from prison last winter after serving more than 23 years.Credit Collection of William Lopez

A sprawling literature exists describing the challenges of re-entering society after serving time in prison, an experience that is marked by depression and disorientation, and is hard enough for those who have been rightfully punished for their crimes. But what about those who are wrongly sent away as the victims of mistaken identity or prosecutorial error? The justly incarcerated are likely to have access to a battery of post-release services like health care, housing aid and social-work assistance, but those who should not have been locked up in the first place are rarely given treatment to address their special needs, and are often left to fend for themselves, finding the cure for their “disease” in one another’s company.

“There was a gap for men like us and I wanted to fill it,” said Mr. Deskovic, who spent 16 years in prison for a rape and a murder he did not commit. After his release in 2006, he filled that gap with the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, a product of a settlement with his jailers that is focused on helping the innocent who found themselves imprisoned to manage the financial and emotional results of their own release.

A combination of advocacy organization and support group, the Deskovic Foundation, since its creation in 2012, has collected a small, tightknit brotherhood of exonerated inmates, a society of the wronged whose members have been forced to come together and assist one another in the absence of assistance from anyone else.

When Eric Glisson, improperly imprisoned on a murder charge for 17 years, was recently planning at age 40 to open Fresh Take, his juice bar in the Bronx, Mr. Deskovic offered him marketing advice and bolstered his credit by co-signing the lease. When Mr. Lopez, convicted of a killing he did not commit, was freed from prison last winter after serving more than 23 years, Mr. Deskovic replaced the clothes he was arrested in with an outfit from Macy’s and put him up for six months — rent free — in the foundation’s apartment in Washington Heights.

And there was Kian Khatibi, who was released in 2008 after serving nine years for a stabbing he eventually discovered that his brother had committed. Beyond the travail of coping with this filial betrayal, he was freed from prison with only the pocket cash he had when arrested and without identification, which left him initially unable to apply for a credit card, a bank account or assistance from the welfare office.

Eric Glisson, exonerated of murder, after his release in 2012.CreditMichael Kamber for The New York Times

Within weeks of getting out, Mr. Khatibi, still in shock, came across a newspaper article about Mr. Deskovic and got in touch. They had lunch and talked about the ordeal of being innocent but imprisoned — an experience akin to an alien abduction.

“I only wanted one thing from Jeff when we met up,” Mr. Khatibi, 38, said. “I wanted to know, from someone who had been through it, what had just happened to me. I wanted to know if it was real.”

In the last quarter-century, 1,314 wrongfully incarcerated Americans have been freed, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project run by the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law. In 2013 alone, 87 inmates were released after serving time improperly.

Jeffrey Deskovic is one of those men. In 1989 the body of Angela Correa, one of Mr. Deskovic’s classmates at Peekskill High School in Westchester County, was discovered lying naked in some woods outside town. Ms. Correa, a sophomore, had been raped and murdered. Mr. Deskovic, who was 16 at the time, fit the description of the killer stitched together by a criminal-profile expert employed by the police.

Although hair and semen samples taken from the scene did not match Mr. Deskovic’s DNA, he aroused the suspicion of detectives by weeping openly at Ms. Correa’s funeral. After two months of intense interrogation, Mr. Deskovic confessed to the crime, though he later contended in a lawsuit that police investigators had fed him the details of the killing and promised him that if he admitted guilt, he would not go to prison but would instead get psychiatric treatment.


But Mr. Deskovic did end up in prison — for 16 years. And when he finally got out in 2006, with the help of the Innocence Project, a legal clinic that specializes in exoneration cases, he was 33 years old and unprepared for ordinary life, as The New York Times reported in an extensive article in 2007. He had never owned a car, had never tied a necktie, had never balanced a checkbook. He had never voted for a president, had never made love.

It was only in 2011, when the lawsuit he had filed led to a $6.5 million settlement with Westchester County, that Mr. Deskovic understood how to heal his psychic wounds and effect his escape from what he called his time capsule. With a portion of his settlement, he established his foundation the next year in an office on West 72nd Street on the Upper West Side. He hired a staff of four and began to seek out his fellow exonerees, as they are sometimes called. He helped them adjust to the unfamiliar world outside prison by offering them money and by making simple gestures like inviting them to his home on Sunday afternoons to watch football games.

“It was how I made sense of what had happened to me,” he said. “I always wished that I had had a Jeff Deskovic when I was on the inside.”

Mr. Deskovic’s foundation is one of only a few organizations in the country that devote themselves to exonerated inmates. The Innocence Project, for one, has two social workers on staff at its office in New York who disburse $10,000 grants to those who have been wrongfully imprisoned and help them find apartments and health care on release. But this assistance is made available only to clients of the project, which restricts its legal work to cases based on DNA evidence. Many exonerations, if not most, result from other causes, like newly discovered evidence or witness recantations.

The Innocence Project tried several years ago to create a broader program to assist exonerees called Life After Exoneration. But Barry Scheck, a founder of the group, said he could not get money for the program because the cohort it was meant to serve was relatively small. Yet if the number of exonerees in need of aid is comparatively limited, the support that they require is often more acute than what is typically available to other former inmates.

Mr. Glisson at his juice bar Fresh Take in the Bronx. CreditVictor J. Blue for The New York Times
 
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“People who have been wrongly convicted don’t have any reason to trust authority,” said Karen Wolff, a social worker with the Innocence Project. “The irony is it impacts their ability to deal with the people there to help them — with their lawyers, the social-service agencies they go to, even with potential bosses down the line.”

Then, of course, there are “bitterness issues,” Ms. Wolff said.

“The first year out is critical in their ability to transition back to life,” she added, “and there is no central place, no single institution that can tell them, ‘O.K., this is what we took from you, now here’s what we’re going to give you back.’ ”

It is widely assumed that exonerated inmates can simply make a claim against their jailers and walk away, like Mr. Deskovic, financially set for life. But only 29 states have laws that permit the wrongfully imprisoned to sue for compensation, and even in those states, the cases often languish in court for years.

In New York, for example, only prisoners who contested the charges against them can sue for damages, although the state attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, recently proposed allowing people who had confessed or pleaded guilty to sue.

Jabbar Collins, another exonerated inmate, with his mother and three children at Green Haven Correctional Facility in 1996.

That means that men like Mr. Khatibi, Mr. Glisson and Mr. Lopez, who all have litigation pending, have no choice in the meantime but to rely upon themselves — and one another — to get back on their feet. Each of them is doing reasonably well despite his situation. Mr. Khatibi is scheduled to graduate from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in May and plans to do part-time pro bono work with the Deskovic Foundation on exoneration cases. Mr. Glisson recently struck a deal with a bottling company to distribute his juices to a couple of local stores. Mr. Lopez is trying get his engineering license, which he lost when he was imprisoned, reinstated by Local 94 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

“Jeff’s been helping out,” Mr. Lopez said. “He calls me up. He asks me how I’m doing. He makes me set my plans and get myself together.” For the first time, Mr. Lopez has an email address. Mr. Deskovic helped him pick out his handle: FreeWillyLopez.

Late last month, on a snowy weekday evening, Mr. Lopez celebrated the first anniversary of his release from prison. Mr. Deskovic gave a party in honor of the occasion at his roomy house in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx.

There were chips and guacamole, and appetizer plates of Swiss cheese and charcuterie. As a magnum of red wine quickly disappeared, Mr. Deskovic played the role of host, urging everyone to please eat more and showing off his new Venetian blinds, which worked by remote control.

Then it was time for dinner — salad and lasagna — and Mr. Lopez sat down at a table set for seven across from Mr. Glisson and next to Mr. Deskovic. Mr. Khatibi was unable to attend, but Mr. Lopez’s wife, Alice Lopez, and his brother, Eugene, were there.

Mr. Deskovic and Mr. Lopez on a phone call last month with Mr. Collins, who, like them, was exonerated. CreditMichael Kirby Smith for The New York Times
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“These guys give him a ton of reinforcement,” Eugene Lopez said, as the food was passed around. “It isn’t easy getting out of prison and back into society. You need your family, but family can only do so much. You also need people who’ve been through what you’ve been through for support.”

Toward the end of the meal, Mr. Deskovic tapped a fork against his glass and proposed a toast to Mr. Lopez. He remembered the first thing that the guest of honor ate after his release: shrimp cocktail and a heaping plate of chicken Parmesan. He remembered what Mr. Lopez looked like on that day a year ago: his “pale face” and his “big lost eyes.”

“I’m just happy to be a part of where you ended up,” Mr. Deskovic went on, looking at his friend. “The three of us” — he turned to look at Mr. Glisson — “we speak the same language.”

Mr. Glisson raised his glass and said, “Here’s to being the victor, not the victim.”

Part of being the victor, it appeared, meant finally speaking openly about the experience of being an innocent man in prison. Mr. Lopez and Mr. Glisson, who initially met in Sing Sing, both said that it was a breach of prison culture for falsely jailed inmates to say they weren’t guilty.

“Everyone claims that they’re not guilty,” Mr. Lopez said, “so no one wants to hear it — even if it’s true.” Besides, he added, claiming that you’re innocent makes you appear weak and vulnerable. “It’s crazy,” he went on, “but you almost have to pretend to be what you know you’re not in order to survive.”

The red wine was followed by Champagne, and Mr. Deskovic picked up his cellphone and called Jabbar Collins, another exonerated inmate who occasionally hangs out with the group. “Hey, J,” he exclaimed when Mr. Collins answered, “it’s Bill’s one-year anniversary.”

Putting the phone on speaker, Mr. Deskovic held it up to Mr. Lopez. Mr. Collins wished him a happy anniversary.

“Thanks, man,” Mr. Lopez said. “It means a lot to hear that. You know how it is, Jabbar. We all come from the trenches, like I call them. From the trenches, bro, the deep trenches.”