The Florida Southern College chapter of the Deskovic Foundation is working on their first exoneration case, attempting to free a man who has been incarcerated for 25 years.
In 1997, there was a shooting at a nightclub in Bronx, New York, resulting in one murder and multiple shotgun and knife injuries. A man, who the Foundation believes to be wrongfully convicted, was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison. They picked up his case in October 2021. In 2022, the Legal Aid Society of New York’s Wrongful Conviction Unit joined forces with attorneys Jeffrey Deskovic and Oscar Michelen to help exonerate this client.
The Deskovic Foundation is a non-profit organization that exonerates both DNA and non-DNA cases, unlike most wrongful conviction organizations. The Foundation started back in 2011 after Jeffrey Deskovic, a New Yorker locked up at age 17 for a crime he did not commit, was freed from prison. After being incarcerated for nearly 16 years, his conviction was overturned thanks to the Innocence Project, an organization that works to free the innocent.
After his release from prison, Deskovic sued those responsible for his wrongful conviction and used a large portion of the compensation he received to start the Foundation.
The FSC chapter of the foundation was started in 2020–it is the only college chapter in the country.
Having already submitted an application to the Bronx District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau and now anticipating the outcome for their current case, the FSC chapter of the Foundation hopes for an exoneration. Everyone in the chapter worked on this case, says Associate Psychology Professor, club advisor and director of the FSC Foundation Dr. Deah Quinlivan.
“If we get this exoneration, it’ll be the Florida Southern chapter [of the] Deskovic Foundation’s first win,” Quinlivan said.
The foundation believes that their client is not guilty, due to what they consider to be unreliable eyewitnesses and a lack of any corroborating physical evidence, including a lack of DNA evidence. There is evidence that was vouchered by law enforcement at the time of this crime, and the Foundation is hopeful that if tested, it will yield DNA results. So far, however, it has not been tested.
“There’s no DNA evidence tying him to it,” Quinlivan said. “There’s no fingerprints [tying him to] it even though they have the gun, they have a knife they found that has blood on it.”
This case relies on only four eyewitnesses and a confidential informant. Much information regarding details of the case is confidential due to its nature.
The first eyewitness had a criminal record of an open felony case when this crime was committed. The prosecution promised him that if he testified to their liking, that felony would be dropped. Based on that promise, he agreed to testify.
“His description of the event was very very messy,” Quinlivan said. “Basically it just didn’t match up.”
After testifying, the first witness recanted saying that he had lied. However, when a witness recants, it doesn’t mean there will be an automatic exoneration, said Quinlivan.
The second eyewitness was a friend and former lover of the person that was murdered. She was asked to identify the defendant three times–the first time she did not pick anyone, the second time she picked someone from the lineup other than the Foundation’s client and the third time, shortly before the trial when she was alone with the prosecutor, she pointed at the client in a photo. A few days before she testified, she was threatened with jail time if she were to not testify.
“It’s incentivized testimony,” said Quinlivan.
The third eyewitness said from the beginning that she could not pick out anyone from a lineup, and refused to even view a lineup. Even though she never saw a lineup, she showed up in court to testify and, for the first time, was asked if she saw the person who did it in the courtroom. She pointed at the client, who was seated at the defense table next to an older woman attorney. Therefore, they do not know if she picked the client from memory or simply because he was the only man seated at the defense table.
The fourth eyewitness was chased by the shooter, and shot three times. When they interviewed him after he woke up in the hospital, he said he could not pick out anyone from a line up. They got him to do a line up anyway, in which he said “It seems like number five.”
“He [the fourth eyewitness] wasn’t very confident,” Quinlivan said.
Another problematic factor that Quinlivan mentioned is the retention interval: the time between exposure to the incident and the identification of the suspect.
“All of these eyewitnesses didn’t see him until a year later, and we know that memory goes bad fast, especially for faces…can you imagine seeing someone for ten seconds three and a half years earlier, and now you have to pick them out?” Quinlivan said. “That’s important too, is that there was this lengthy retention interval. It’s chaotic, it’s stressful, people were being shot.”
The prosecution’s case rested entirely on the testimony of the four eyewitnesses, and sightings of the suspect driving away in a car.
“The only evidence they have is the eyewitnesses and people describing the color of a car [that they saw],” Quinlivan said. “The police did chase a car that was owned by my client.”
“Basically that’s the only part they have to work out…he can own this car and have been in the car but not committed a crime,” Quinlivan said.
Intern and FSC student Dalton Lee said that while the chapter looks at many cases, this one is the furthest that any of them have ever progressed.
“We [look at] a lot of cases, we actually have a whole filing cabinet full of them…but this is the first one that has ever gotten this far,” Lee said.
While this chapter has worked on the case for about three weeks, it was originally passed down from the Foundation’s headquarters.
“It’s really the first undertaking by undergraduate students,” Lee said. “So it was rewarding knowing that we were trusted by the broader foundation with that.”
After class was canceled for several days due to Hurricane Nicole, the students working the case had more free time to read through all of the files, which Lee described as being one of the most challenging aspects of working on the case.
“We had to read through all the witness testimonies and point out a lot of inconsistencies, and that requires you to not just read through the material…you really have to synthesize it and remember what people said because a lot of their testimony changed seemingly throughout the entire process,” Lee said.
While the Foundation has to be more cautious and precise with their work than many other clubs at FSC, Lee said the possibility of freeing an innocent person makes all their effort worth it.
“It’s more rewarding, because you know what you’re doing is directly impacting someone. You know that it’s righting the wrongs that have been done in the past to someone for any reason,” Lee said. “It kind of gives you a reason to keep going.”
As they await the final decision to be made, the Foundation is attempting to win this exoneration through working with the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Bureau.
“Right now [assistant district attorneys] have asked to read the transcript, they have my report, they have said that they don’t think that the eyewitnesses are reliable, and they thought it was helpful to have an expert [at the presentation] but we still don’t know the outcome,” Quinlivan said.