At least 205 men and one woman nationwide have been exonerated through DNA evidence since 1989, including 53 who, like Mr. Deskovic, were convicted of murder. In gathering information on 137 of them over the past four months — one of the most extensive such efforts to date — The New York Times found that many faced the same challenges Mr. Deskovic has confronted, like making a living, reconnecting with relatives and seeking financial recompense for his lost years.
But given Mr. Deskovic’s age at conviction (he was 17, one of about two dozen of the 206 exonerated inmates imprisoned as teenagers) and length of incarceration (about 35 percent spent more than 15 years behind bars), he has faced particular challenges.
He could be the assertive adult who articulately lobbied at the State Capitol in April to require videotaping of police interrogations. He could also be the overgrown adolescent who stamped his feet and pouted at a Grand Central Terminal kiosk in August when asked if he wanted his smoothie with yogurt or apple juice.
Having spent nearly half his life locked up, accused of brutalizing a high school classmate he hardly knew, Mr. Deskovic was sent into the world last fall lacking some of life’s most fundamental skills and experiences.
He had never lived alone, owned a car, scanned the classifieds in search of work. He had never voted, balanced a checkbook or learned to knot a tie.
He missed the senior prom, the funeral of the grandmother who helped raise him, and his best friend’s wedding.
He said he had never made love.
For six months, Mr. Deskovic got by on $137 a month in disability checks and $150 in food stamps from the federal government, carrying cans of tuna in his backpack. Now earning money through speeches and newspaper columns about wrongful conviction, Mr. Deskovic paid rent for the first time in his life in August, for a cozy attic apartment in Tarrytown that the county subsidizes because of his depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In September, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the police, the medical examiner, a prison guard and the governments of two counties, alleging that detectives falsified reports and coerced his confession, and that the prison guard groped and beat him. A separate lawsuit in the Court of Claims is planned seeking payment from the state for the wrongful incarceration.
Since January, he has been enrolled at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, and he expects to earn a bachelor’s degree in behavioral sciences in two months. Since June, he has studied daily for the Law School Admissions Test in hopes of soon going to law school.
At Mercy on a $22,000 scholarship, Mr. Deskovic has read Marx, Freud and Jung but has struggled to navigate the nuances of flirtation and friendship.
“These people are half my age,” he said one morning in a campus cafeteria filled with loud young men in baseball caps and baggy jeans. “They have their own social networks and I’m not part of it. They have direction. They’re going through the normal cycle of things.”
Mr. Deskovic’s life after exoneration has been punctuated by milestones like getting a driver’s license (and a $3,000 Pontiac Grand Am with a bumper sticker proclaiming, “Failure is not an option”), and new adventures, like playing table tennis at a Greenwich Village bar with people he had met online.
Exonerated, Freed, and What Happened Then