The Peekskill NAACP and the Peekskill High School Black Culture Club hosted a panel discussion last Thursday night in support of New York establishing a Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct, a bill that would investigate and discipline prosecutors for misconduct.
The panel, comprised of five men who have been on both sides of the law, explained to the large crowd that prosecutors are seldom punished for violating their judicial integrity, including persuading witnesses to lie, using fraudulent evidence, suppressing evidence or convicting someone wrongfully accused.
Jeffrey Deskovic, a former Peekskill resident who was arrested at 16 years old in 1990 for a rape and murder he did not commit and later spent 16 years in prison despite a pre-trial negative DNA test, said prosecutorial misconduct played a major factor in his wrongful conviction.
He explained how the medical examiner altered evidence during his trial and ultimately trashed the victim’s reputation to fit the prosecution’s theory. He added how he faced extreme challenges fighting the wrongful conviction and efforts to have more testing done. Following his exoneration, in which DNA testing identified the actual perpetrator, the medical examiner admitted the evidence presented during his case did not exist.
“The job of the prosecutor is not simply to win convictions, it’s to do justice and that means convicting guilty people through lawful means using legally obtained evidence while not violating any rights and it means dismissing cases when somebody is innocent,” Deskovic said.
“Prosecutorial misconduct is a problem statewide. They’re not afraid to do it. The judges rarely call them out on it and if they do happen to get caught nothing is going to happen to you so where’s the punishment? Where’s the deterrence?” he added.
New York is ranked second in the country in wrongful convictions behind Texas, and if passed, the Commission would be the first in the nation. The Commission would be composed of 11 members including prosecutors and defense attorneys who will conduct the investigations. Only the Governor can remove a prosecutor.
Bill Bastuk, founder of It Could Happen To You, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the falsely accused, said prosecution withheld evidence he was legally entitled to after a teenager falsely accused him of rape. He said the prosecutor violated her power to get “a gold star on her head and a golden hammer on her door.” He was later acquitted.
“What happened to me happens quite often,” Bastuk said. “Prosecutors are the most powerful people in the criminal justice system and they are the least accountable. When they break their own rules, there are no consequences. That’s not common sense and it makes no sense.”
Dr. Bennett Gershman, Professor at Pace Law School, agreed how there is no accountability for prosecutors who violate their power. He said while most prosecutors try to do the right thing, several commit serious acts of wrongdoing and a process must be put in place that holds them responsible like judges.
Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., founder of the Coalition for Police Reform and whose father was allegedly killed by White Plains Police in 2011, said he continually questions the investigation that was handled by former Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore. With audio evidence of the encounter that included racial slurs said by police officers to the victim, Chamberlain added that he wonders what was presented to the Grand Jury and why there were no indictments.
Deskovic stressed how important it is for the state, county and local municipalities to support the resolution and not “chicken out” when it gets to the floor for a vote. He urged elected officials to do what’s right and to stop protecting professional wrongdoing.
“I’m here for action, I’m here for support, I’m here for solidarity, I need the people behind the bill and for that we need to share some move to action items,” he said. “We’re at a moment of truth.”
Peekskill Mayor Andre Rainey, who was in attendance along with Peekskill Councilwoman Vanessa Agudelo, Yonkers Councilwoman Shanae Williams and County Legislator Alfreda Williams (D-Greenburgh), told Deskovic that he will always vote in support of what is right.
“There’s no chicken here and I stand by that,” Rainey said. “Whether I’m here as an elected official or just a citizen of Peekskill, I’m always going to stand by what’s right. You have somebody that’s in an elected position that will support what’s right.”