Salvatore Ambrosino | Nov. 1
A 69-year-old woman pleads to be let out of prison in a letter addressed to Florida Southern College.
“To whom it may concern,” the letter reads. “Please help me out I will be 70 this year and in 2008 I was on the medication Adderall, an amphetamine, and only weighed 87 lbs.”
The woman says she’s afraid she’ll die in prison for a crime she committed while on a pharmaceutical drug.
“I went into an amphetamine psychosis and stabbed my 15-year-old son,” the letter reads. “He’s perfectly alive.”
Florida Southern College’s Deskovic Foundation is the only college chapter in the country strictly for undergraduates to shuffle through stacks of mail sent from incarcerated individuals in Florida prisons. Most of them seek to claim to their innocence behind the bars of scratch paper.
It’s the only college chapter of a foundation founded by Jeffrey Deskovic, a New Yorker whose infamous wrongful conviction led to his 15 year imprisonment for the brutalization and murder of his classmate.
16-year-old Deskovic was driven to a far-off location and interrogated by detectives and police without his parents for 6 hours. During this he gave a false confession, being told that DNA evidence would clear him as a suspect. In 1990, the jury clung to his confession as strong evidence and he was convicted for the killing and sentenced to 15 years-to-life in prison.
It wasn’t until January 2006, 16 years after his conviction, that the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to restoring freedom to the wrongfully convicted, took up Deskovic’s case. The organization used DNA technology to find that the samples connected to the case matched that of an already-convicted murderer. Deskovic was exonerated and released from prison in September of that year.
“The Florida Southern chapter of the Deskovic Foundation is ramping up,” Deskovic said. “It’s ramping up for us to do policy work in Florida, aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. It’s also ramping up to work on wrongful conviction cases.”
Deskovic started the Foundation in 2011, after he was compensated for his wrongful conviction.
What separates the Deskovic Foundation from other organizations like the Innocence Project, the organization that freed Deskovic, is that the foundation does not deal exclusively with cases involving DNA evidence.
“They were not willing to go beyond doing DNA cases,” Deskovic said. “I felt strongly that if someone’s innocent they can be proven innocent, why should it be limited only to DNA cases?”
Associate Psychology Professor Dr. Deah Quinlivan met Deskovic at John Jay College of Criminal Justice during a conference shortly after his exoneration. They’ve been close friends ever since, even spending some holidays together.
The two had the idea for a Floridian chapter of the foundation nearly a decade ago. It wasn’t until Deskovic met some of the students that he felt compelled to begin the chapter, impressed with the people he had met. This was in 2018.
“It just made sense,” Deskovic said.
Soon after, Deskovic sent Quinlivan a box of letters the New York-based foundation received from from Florida prisons.
“The first way it started was Jeff sent me a huge box of things he got from Florida,” Quinlivan said.
Though the chapter today is still just starting out, they have received stacks of hand-scrawled letters from people in Florida prisons.
“I can relate because I used to do it,” Deskovic said about letter writing. “The letters mean a lot because I know that it gives people hope. It all starts with letters.”
Members of the chapter spend hours nearly every day sorting through court documents—drug tests, urine samples, fingerprints analysis and drawings of bodies on graph paper, mortuary reports. All the documents that might prove crucial to someone’s innocence.
Though they are without the resources to help people incarcerated outside the state of Florida, they receive letters from prisoners addressed from states across the country. A desk inside Quinlivan’s office is piled with mailing envelopes and vanilla folders.
To date, the chapter has received about 80 applicants. Most of the applicants sending letters hear about the foundation by word-of-mouth inside prisons.
“This is a normal week,” Quinlivan said. “People told people.”
The chapter examines two factors of every case. They examine the innocence claim and decide whether or not they believe it. Then they examine the viability of the case, the strength of the evidence for the innocence claim.
Two interns shuffle through the letters in Quinlivan’s dark, windowless office, painting over sensitive information on copies of the original letters, which are stored in a filing cabinet with the rest of the trial documents they have collected. This documentation is crucial to the process of building a case for freeing each applicant.
“We are the only school with undergrads in this program,” intern and psychology major Adelyn Zeff said. “It’s really important that we do our work so we don’t look like the little 18-year-olds.”
The process of checking all the boxes for each applicant is a long one. It could take years before all of the evidence required is gathered for a single case.
“We are working with real people,” Zeff said. “It’s not just turning your homework into class late, it really affects people.”
They scan each applicant’s letter for who, what, when, where and why of the crime. They also look for identifiers, or “red flags,” typical of wrongful convictions that could build a case for an applicant’s exoneration.
“They’ll usually identify them when they write to us,” intern Katelyn Hicks said. “We do have a checklist of red flags that their case really is a possible wrongful conviction.”
Sometimes, like in the letter from the old woman, they get letters admitting from people that their guilt, asking for the sentence to be lessened. This is an example of a rejected case.
“People hear about us and they don’t know exactly what we do,” Hicks said. “They’ll see justice and they’ll write to us. They’ll admit that they’re guilty—that they did it, and ask us to lessen their sentence. We can’t do that.”
If they determine a case is acceptable, they send the applicant a questionnaire, asking for “everything under the sun,” chapter President Lindsey Predko says, that can be sent for the chapter in terms of evidence.
The documents they receive are mostly handwritten because access to a printer is limited in prison. Because of this, some applicants have mailed hand-copied court transcriptions and other official documents.
“Some, the crime itself is just crazy, for others it’s the circumstances they are in,” Predko said. “For a lot, it’s about what goes down in the interrogation room, or in the courtrooms when things are ignored or not brought to light.”
Predko says it’s a big issue in cases dealing with people who have mental disabilities and are mistreated because of that.
“It is scary,” Predko said. “Everything about the process is scary—imagine getting arrested for a crime people think you did—the police officers are not gentle.”
Many people who aren’t guilty won’t ask for a lawyer, Predko says, increasing their risk of falling victim to a wrongful conviction.
“These are real people,” Predko said. “When you’re reading it you realize these are real people who actually didn’t do it, serving anywhere from a couple years to life.”
One of the applicants asking for exoneration is on death row.
After analyzing the evidence produced by an applicant, if the facts of the case line up enough to support their innocence claim, chapter members approve it for further examination and Quinlivan approves it. If Quinlivan approves it, Deskovic himself must then approve it to move forward with the case.
The chapter hasn’t gotten to that point with any applicant yet.
The chapter is currently fundraising and looking for experts who are willing to do pro bono work: lawyers and experts who can examine faults in DNA evidence, false confessions and false witness statements—experts who can examine the factors that tend to be problematic in the outcome of a trial. Quinlivan herself is an expert in eyewitness identification.
“There’s so many things that we have to pay for,” Quinlivan said. “I would say that we need thousands [of dollars], it would be more than thousands. Funding is a big thing right now.”
When the chapter isn’t working on gathering evidence for exonerating their applicants, they conduct research for prison policy reform.
They’re currently preparing their fight to strike down the Florida “Clean Hands” provision, which excludes exonerated individuals convicted in other instances from receiving payment for their false convictions.
“That’s an awful one,” Quinlivan said. “There’s a lot of people who would not qualify anymore because of that.”
In 1985, Robert DuBoise was sentenced to death row for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. He spent 37 years in prison before his case was vacated in 2020 due to newly examined DNA evidence.
“He’s not eligible for compensation,” Deskovic said, despite the nearly 4 decades DuBoise spent in prison. “Being an example out of one Floridian out of a bunch who have been exonerated, but are not eligible for compensation.”
The foundation is currently assessing Florida’s politics and collecting data on Florida lawmakers to determine which elected officials are likely to champion their proposed reforms. When more funds are raised, they’ll be doing more policy work.
“That’s definitely a clear-cut policy goal that we will go after,” Deskovic said.
“I like being that beacon of hope,” Deskovic said.
This year, Deskovic has been free for 16 years. He doesn’t have that “fog” he used to have, and he says he’s in a better place than when he was exonerated.
“Things feel more real,” Deskovid said. “I’ve finally been home for the same amount of time I was incarcerated. I feel like that leveling out has a lot to do with my feeling free.”
Ultimately, he would like to have a chapter of his Foundation in every state of the U.S. Deskovic says he wants to put his stamp on the world by fighting wrongful conviction.
“The Florida Southern chapter of the foundation is a way I can do that,” Deskovic said. “It’s definitely intended to be my life’s work, it’s intended to be a legacy, and it’s intended to be something that survives me.”
He says his work at the foundation is one of the best feelings in the world.
“I would much rather have never had my life disrupted,” Deskovic said. “But I can’t go back in time.”
“All I can deal with is right now and going forward. All of this advocacy work makes my suffering meaningful, makes it count for something and its healing and cathartic. I understand my place in the world and it gives me some inner peace,” Deskovic said.