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Wrongful Conviction Experts Highlight the Importance of the Fifth Amendment

By Joanna Reid

Adelphi’s Criminal Justice Club and Artivism club got together on November 1 to hold an event called, “The Exonerated: False Confessions and Wrongful Conviction” with speakers Jefferey Deskovic and Oscar Michelen. Deskovic was wrongfully charged at age 17 for rape and murder and now he runs a foundation that helps spread awareness about wrongful convictions. Oscar Michelen is an accomplished lawyer and a law professor who has taken on several wrongful convictions cases.

Oscar Michelen (left) and Jeffrey Deskovic (right) presenting in the Adelphi Room in the Nexus Building.

The event was sponsored by the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice and held in the Adelphi Room in the Nexus Building. It was held right before the midterm election to get young people to think about how they can use their vote to increase equality and eliminate wrongful convictions. About 40 people attended in person and over Zoom, as well as several people who streamed the event on Facebook.

Senior Charles Herman, president of the Criminal Justice Club, said the event was crucial for AU students to attend because “the speakers demonstrated just how unequal and unjust our criminal justice system is.

“These accounts help our students truly understand the barriers people face in the system, primarily those less privileged and without the resources, financial and otherwise, to fight for their innocence,” Herman said. “It is up to us to fix this and I hope this event shone a light on these atrocities and perhaps some students will find internships and careers in nonprofits working to exonerate those wrongfully incarcerated.”

Deskovic shared his experiences with wrongful conviction when he was mistakenly sentenced for the rape and murder of a young girl in 1990. Deskovic said he grew up in a small town where things like murders did not happen often, so when the incident happened, people were instilled with great fear.

He explained, “As a result of not really fitting in, the students in the high school told the police they might want to speak with me. I had an emotional reaction to the death of a classmate. The police thought that was some outward sign of my inner guilt. They used the good-cop-bad-cop technique. I began to look at the officer pretending to be my friend as a father figure.”

Deskovic described that a police officer coerced him into taking a polygraph test, but was not dressed in uniform, never read him his Miranda Rights and did not explicitly state he was a cop. During the test, Deskovic did not understand a lot of the questions and was given several cups of coffee beforehand to make him nervous. These tests are often inaccurate, but he passed. Despite that, the police told him he failed and he would be better off confessing. He said the police lied to him telling him that he would be able to go home if he simply admitted to the crime.

“I was only concerned with my safety in the moment, so I made up a story based on the information, which they had given me that day,” he recalled.

He was instead arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison to life in prison. He was tried as an adult, despite only being a teenager.

Deskovic was acquitted for these crimes in 2006 at age 33. Afterwards he became a lawyer. He’s now made it his mission to spread awareness and help people who were incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. He has presented a TedTalk on the topic and his foundation has exonerated 11 wrongfully convicted people and helped to pass legislation that prevents unfair sentencing.

Michelin presented a few wrongful conviction cases that he won. Most notably he spoke about his client, David McCallum who was 16 when he was arrested for kidnapping and murder of an 18 year old in 1985. There was clear evidence that McCallum was not the abductor, yet law enforcement still targeted him. Another suspect was interviewed, but both McCallum and the other suspect claimed the other one committed the crime. Police threatened McCallum with physical violence in order to get him to confess. His confession had few details about the crime, but he was still arrested. Michelen was able to prove that the investigator in the case lied on the stand. After 28 years in prison, McCallum was freed because of Michelen’s hard work. Unfortunately, shortly after McCallum died due to ink poisoning from a tattoo he got in prison. Had he not been convicted at all, McCallum may have been alive today.

Michelen mentioned that about one-third of all DNA exonerations prove that a suspect that pled guilty to a crime did not actually commit the crime. Both Michelen and Deskovic advocated for the use of the Fifth Amendment if one is ever being interrogated. Michelen believes just because one pleads the Fifth, does not necessarily mean they are guilty. He stated, “Our founding fathers, as troubled and sordid as their past might be, they care more about criminal justice than anything else. They wanted to make sure a person could never be forced to testify against themselves. The greatest protection of the innocent in the history of the world is our Fifth Amendment.”

Carly Herman, a junior criminal justice major, said the event was insightful. “It was so important because it put a face to wrongful convictions. I feel like so many people assume that ‘it would never happen to me’. However, wrongful convictions do occur in our criminal justice system and unfortunately, no one is immune.”

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