In 1989, then-16-year-old Jeffrey Deskovic confessed to the murder and rape of a 15-year-old classmate in Putnam County, New York. He was convicted and sentenced to 15-years-to-life in prison. He claimed that police had coerced the confession and that he was wrongly convicted. In 2006, DNA testing showed that Deskovic actually was innocent. DNA found on the victim matched that of another man in prison, Steven Cunningham, who had been convicted for murder.
Cunningham was exonerated and released. He sued Putnam County. On Thursday a federal jury ruled in Deskovic’s favor and awarded him $41.65 million in damages.
The jury awarded $25 million for the time he spent wrongfully imprisoned, $15 million for his suffering, and the rest for lost wages over those years.
Deskovic, though, will receive just $10 million because of a pretrial settlement with the county intended to limit the potential payout. But the jury’s verdict, reached after an hour and a half of deliberation, spoke to the flawed process that led to Deskovic’s conviction.
Police initially suspected Deskovic because he was late for school on the same day his classmate, 15-year-old Angela Correa, disappeared in Peekskill. Her body was found two days later. Hair and semen found at the scene did not match Desovic’s DNA, but police continued to question Deskovic for weeks.
He confessed during a seven-hour interrogation two months after the crime. He had taken three polygraph tests. No lawyer was present. Later, Deskovic said that police told him that he would not go to prison if he confessed but instead would get treatment for mental health issues.
“I was tired, confused, scared, hungry — I wanted to get out of there,” he told the New York Times in 2007. “I told the police what they wanted to hear, but I never got to go home. They lied to me.”
During Deskovic’s appeal attempt, his defense attorneys tested the DNA evidence against the state’s DNA bank of convicted felons. The test identified the match to Cunningham in September 2006. Deskovic was released from prison that same month. Two months later, a judge dismissed the conviction. Cunningham confessed to killing Angela Correa.