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"This guy's walkin' down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out.

A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you! Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on.

Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I'm down in this hole; can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey, Joe, it's me. Can ya help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are ya stupid? Now we're both down here.’ The friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out."

-Leo McGarry, The West Wing

I don’t know what I’d do if I lost half my life to a wrongful conviction. I’d like to think I would hold up under pressure, continue working to improve myself as a person, and devote my efforts to clearing my name and regaining my freedom. I’d like to think that, but more likely is that I’d crumble into pieces.

I’m not as strong as Jeff.

I’ve written about Jeffrey Deskovic before. When still a sixteen year-old kid in high school, a classmate was raped and murdered, and the police bullied him—just a scared kid, really—into giving a false confession. It took him another sixteen years to clear his name and leave Elmira Correctional Facility with the apology and settlement that he had earned a thousand times over through his ordeal. When I last wrote about, neither he nor I seemed to know what he would do with his life, now that it was his again.

I don’t know what I’d do if I received a second chance like Jeff’s. I’d like to think I would throw myself into making the world a better place somehow, but more likely is that I’d devolve into a selfish, isolated man who couldn’t bring himself to face the wider world that had caused such torment.

I’m not as dedicated as Jeff.

Jeff used his settlement from the state of New York to form The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, an organization dedicated to ending wrongful convictions, freeing the innocent, and helping the exonerated reintegrate into society. Having faced the struggles of seeking a fair hearing in a justice system stacked against the convicted, and the perplexion of being thrown back into a strange world both reminiscent and wildly distinct from the one he left, Jeff sought to use his settlement to make the challenges facing the wrongfully convicted a little easier to bear.

I really don’t know what I’d do if I learned that an innocent man was locked away for a crime he didn’t commit, that the courts had continually tried to keep him from airing the crimes committed against his liberty, and that there might be a chance to free him with enough dedication and perseverance. I’d like to think that I would move heaven and earth to help, but I know myself better than that.

But Jeff would, and he did.

The man’s name is William Lopez, and he was convicted in 1989 for a drug-related murder that he didn’t commit.

I tried to write out what happened to Lopez a couple of times, but there isn’t a good way to describe a railroading. In brief: William Lopez was convicted based in part on the unbelievable-yet-somehow-believed testimony from a crack-binging prostitute who kept changing her story, in part on the utterly incompetent and deceitful representation of his attorney, and in part because his case was overseen by an incompetent judicial official who simply could not manage to handle this case responsibly or to reliably protect the defendant’s rights.

The judge who ordered Lopez’s release phrased it this way in his opinion:

In short, the prosecution eyewitness who was sober, face-to-face with the shooter, and had no motive to lie did not recognize Lopez when she saw him and described a perpetrator with characteristics bearing no resemblance to his. The other eyewitness had been awake for two days straight, had smoked ten to twelve vials of crack in the two hours prior to the shooting, claimed to have seen everything while peeking through a partially ajar door in a different room, and provided inconsistent accounts of what she saw.

…Lopez has been wronged by the State of New York. This wrongdoing has ranged from an overzealous and deceitful trial prosecutor; to a series of indolent and ill-prepared defense attorneys; to a bewildering jury verdict; and to the incomprehensible Justice Demarest, who so regrettably failed time and time again to give meaningful consideration to the host of powerful arguments Lopez presented to her. The result is that a likely innocent man has been in prison for over twenty-three years. He should be released with the State's apology.

William Lopez was released just over a month ago. He is still awaiting word whether the state plans to retry his case, but for the time being he is free and optimistic that he’ll remain so.

And one of the things keeping him optimistic is the Deskovic Foundation. While he was still in prison and needed to find one of the witnesses at his trial who had moved to the Dominican Republic, the Deskovic Foundation helped track her down and arranged for her to testify via Skype, testimony which was crucial in having Lopez’s conviction reversed. And when he was released, the Deskovic Foundation helped him find an apartment, health care, and a therapist to help him with adjusting back to life outside the correctional system.

Willie Lopez (left) and Jeffrey Deskovic at the Deskovic Foundation offices after Lopez's release.

I doubt that, in his shoes, I would be doing exactly what Jeff Deskovic is doing, and working to help fix a system that is so obviously broken. I doubt that I’d dedicate myself to pursuing justice for the wrongfully convicted, and helping the exonerated to put their lives back together. But that’s because I doubt I could bring myself to do what Jeff has done, and leap back into that hole, and help others who are trapped to find their way out.

For too many people, Jeff Deskovic and the folks at the Deskovic Foundation are a lifeline. This work isn’t free or easy, but goddamn is it necessary. So please, support the Deskovic Foundation if you can, and do what you can—write your legislators, talk to your elected officials, work within your communities—to ensure that we can someday truly be a nation of justice for all.

For more on the Lopez case and his release, click here.

To read the Lopez Opinion, click here. (pdf)

For more information about The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, click here.

Originally posted to JR on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 10:15 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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