Unfortunately, there are some practices within our criminal justice system that don’t always accomplish what they were intended to do. Policies and procedures proposed years ago may not work in modern society. Time and time again, our system fails the innocent, often with deathly consequences.
In November of 2016, The Excellence Fees Special Events Mentor, Dr. Marina Sorochinski gathered a panel of experts and people who have experienced firsthand the ins and outs of our justice system, to explore the psycho-cognitive issues encompassing the topic of wrongful convictions. John Jay faculty members, Dr. Jennifer Dysart and Dr. Charles Stone, elaborated on false eyewitness testimony and misidentification, and false memory, respectively. Dr. Dysart, an expert witness on eyewitness memory in state and federal courts, spoke on the Innocence Project and the National Registry of Exonerations, which currently total 1,965, since 1989. For over twenty years, she has researched why and how mistakes are made in eyewitness accounts, especially regarding memory contamination, that may lead to false convictions. She suggested controllable ways to reform our system for police, attorneys, court proceedings, and investigators. Dr. Stone, an expert on jury research, memory, and cognitive science, talked about group memory. He personally researches social influence on group memory and jurors.
The panel also covered a disheartening topic: false imprisonment. Mr. Kian Khatibi spent nine years of his young life in prison, completely innocent. He was convicted of assault in 1998 at age 22, and sentenced seven to fourteen years. Mr. Khatibi could not be accurately identified by either of the victims involved in the incident, and was denied parole in 2006, because he would not admit his guilt for a crime he did not commit. He was finally released in 2008, as the true assailant, Khatibi’s own brother, finally confessed at a family dinner. Mr. Khatibi eventually filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against the Village of Pleasantville and two police officers who investigated the crime. In 2012, the New York State Court of Claims found that Mr. Khatibi had proven his innocence and a claim was settled for two million dollars. He also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. Mr. Khatibi decided to move forward with his life. He graduated from New York University and is pursuing a law degree at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
Another man on the panel who shares Mr. Khatibi’s unlucky yet triumphant narrative was Jeffrey Deskovic. Mr. Deskovic was also innocent and imprisoned for sixteen years. In 1989, when Mr. Deskovic was sixteen, his classmate was raped and murdered. He was considered a suspect because he was late to school the day after the victim disappeared. Police also believed he seemed overly upset, visiting the victim’s wake three times. After a grueling investigation, he falsely confessed and was sentenced fifteen years to life, even though his DNA did not match the victim’s rape kit. He lost seven appeals and was denied parole in his fifteenth year, but kept fighting. After spending sixteen years in prison as an innocent man, post-conviction DNA testing proved his innocence and identified the real perpetrator: a man in jail for killing a mother of two. With help from The Innocence Project, Mr. Deskovic was finally freed in 2006, but at what cost?
He prevailed through the struggle and wanted to advocate for his fellow innocent prison mates, so he created the The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice. His organization aims to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and help heal, educate and reintegrate the victims back into society after release. A legal staff investigates wrongful conviction claims for both DNA and non-DNA cases. The foundation tries to gather evidence, and works with private defense counsel. Mr. Deskovic is currently pursuing a law degree at Pace University Law School, to continue his mission.
Another perspective on courtroom proceedings was offered from panelist Mr. Adam Sirois, a juror in the murder case of Etan Patz. He spoke about his experience on this high-profile case, elaborating on the tendency for jurors to often misinterpret case facts and confuse their actual responsibilities. Mr. Sirois helped deliberate the fate of Pedro Hernandez, who was being tried over thirty years after allegedly abducting and murdering six-year-old Etan Patz in 1979. Mr. Sirois held out and forced a hung jury because he believed could not determine certain circumstances and inferences as factual evidence in the case; he describes his decision here. The retrial is currently underway. He hopes to make a documentary detailing how the jury approached the case and the surrounding issues: police procedures, eyewitness misidentification, memory issues, false confessions, mental health factors, sensationalized media, and two staples of our system that must be upheld: innocent until proven guilty and proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
We must work together here at John Jay to continue to support and encourage reform in our systems that allow innocent men to be sentenced to serious time. In 2015, a record-breaking number of people were exonerated: 149 people spent an average of fifteen years in prison before being cleared. Of those, 27 had falsely confessed. It’s estimated that 120,000 innocent people are currently incarcerated. We must all hold ourselves and our country to a higher standard of justice, and encourage our fellow citizens to do the same.