The Truth Shall Set You Free

By Neal Gabler

Share

The Truth Shall Set You Free:

On a hot, steamy morning last July, a dozen people convened in a red-brick courthouse in McRae, Georgia, which is literally a two-stoplight town. Most of them had gotten together years earlier, though the circumstances of the first meeting were considerably more pleasant. It was January 31, 1992, and they had gathered at the Golden Corral restaurant in Hinesville, Georgia for the wedding-rehearsal dinner of Mark Jones and his sweetheart, Dawn Burgett, who were to be married the following afternoon in the chapel at Fort Stewart, where Jones, a private in the Army, was stationed. The mood then was jovial, according to Jones’s mother. After dinner, at about 9:30 P.M., Jones and two Army buddies, Ken Gardiner and Dominic Lucci, milled about in the parking lot with the other guests. Jones was a teetotaler and something of a recluse, but his friends wanted to throw him a bachelor party by taking him to a strip club for one last night of freedom, and Burgett encouraged him to go. So the boys piled into Gardiner’s Chevy Cavalier, destined for a nearby club. When they arrived, Jones, who was only 20, was carded, so the friends headed for another club, Tops Lounge, which Lucci had once visited, about an hour away in Savannah. When they arrived at Tops, Jones was carded again, but a customer there suggested another club he was sure Jones would be admitted to. So the three hopped back into the car—and promptly got lost. They were passing the Savannah police headquarters, known as the Barracks, when they stopped to ask a female officer they saw outside for directions. And thus began a 21-year odyssey that has yet to end.

That’s because the officer had just returned from a murder scene where a 35-year-old drug addict named Stanley Jackson had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting, and she had in tow the only eyewitness to the crime: James White, a 38-year-old evangelical preacher who was entering his home when Jackson was killed in a nearby intersection. White told the officer that the car carrying Jones, Gardiner and Lucci “looked like” the car he had seen speeding away. Shortly afterward the three were pulled from the strip club and lined up against a wall, where White said, “That’s what they were wearing.” They were then brought to the Barracks. Burgett got a call from Jones at about two A.M., telling her he had been arrested. After a visit to the jail, she returned to the chapel later that morning and posted a sign on the door: WEDDING OF DAWN BURGETT AND MARK JONES CANCELED DUE TO FAMILY EMERGENCY.

It was a short trial. At the time, Savannah was a racial cauldron due largely to a violent drug gang headed by a sociopath named Ricky Jivens. The city’s new mayor, who had taken office just weeks before Jackson’s death, had been elected with a substantial black vote on a platform of crime prevention, and the prosecution of three white soldiers for the murder of a black man helped fulfill her promise of racial evenhandedness. At trial the defendants adduced a “time alibi”—they couldn’t possibly have gotten from Hinesville to Savannah in time to commit the murder, much less pick up AK-47s, the weapons with which Jackson had presumably been killed. There was absolutely no forensic evidence connecting them to the crime, save a trace of gunshot residue on the back of Jones’s hand that was explained away by his having moved gear that had been on the gunnery range earlier that day. But the prosecutor said they had motive. He claimed the three were addicts of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons and had tried to actualize the game by slaying an “evil” person. Adding a second motive, he brought a member of Jones’s outfit to the stand to say Jones had threatened to kill a black man that weekend, even though none of the defendants had a history of violence or racial prejudice. And then there was James White, who had identified the men as the perpetrators. The jury was out only a few hours before returning a guilty verdict. The three were sentenced to life.

The boys’ attorneys filed appeals. They even collected affidavits from seven members of the jury, who testified to several instances of misconduct, including a jury member who had declared the three guilty before the trial had begun. All were denied. The boys’ families stayed in touch for a while, and then they didn’t. “It was too painful,” says Jones’s mother, Deborah. Burgett remained devoted to Jones, but he wanted her to get on with her life, so he told her he didn’t love her anymore, which broke her heart. She eventually married someone else. The boys did their time without a blemish on their records. Jones studied, collected certificates in everything from woodworking to engine repair and began teaching other inmates how to get a GED. Their parents would visit a few times a year—none of them lived in Georgia—and the boys could talk with them on the phone, but the calls were collect and cost nearly $20, so these were rationed every few weeks. Meanwhile, the attorneys moved on when the families couldn’t pay them.

And that is where the case would have rested, were it not for the neat, short man with a fringe of gray hair, sitting behind the petitioners’ counsel in the McRae courtroom on that sweltering morning last July, his face grimly resolute. His name is Jim McCloskey, and for the Savannah Three, as well as for some 80 other convicts sentenced to life in prison or to death, he is not only their last hope, he is their only hope. Fortunately, he is a pretty good hope to have.

McCloskey is the founder and executive director of Centurion Ministries, which is dedicated to freeing the wrongly convicted. Dominic Lucci wrote Centurion in 2000, trying to enlist its help, and then again in 2003, insisting he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Lucci couldn’t have known that getting Centurion to take a case is a little like winning the Powerball lottery. Centurion receives 1,100 requests from prisoners each year and selects only one to three cases to advocate. Each request is examined by Centurion’s small staff to see if the prisoner qualifies for the group’s assistance. Does he profess innocence rather than invoke a legal technicality? Have his appeals been exhausted? Is the prisoner indigent? Only after answering these in the affirmative does the staff delve into the trial record. In the case of the Savannah Three, this selection process alone took nearly six years, and it ended, as all selection processes end, with McCloskey going to the prisons and interviewing the convicts at length to determine not only whether they are innocent but also whether they are “good people,” people who would live a productive life if released.

As long as the selection process takes, the process of trying to gain a prisoner’s freedom usually takes even longer—typically five to 10 years, during which the prisoners are still incarcerated, still doing time for crimes McCloskey is convinced they did not commit. Sometimes it is a matter of gaining an acquittal through a retrial, sometimes a matter of gaining freedom via parole, sometimes a matter of having a conviction reversed through an evidentiary hearing at which new evidence is introduced and a judge renders a verdict, which is what McCloskey won in that McRae courtroom for the Savannah Three. The good news is that in its 33 years of existence, CM has worked on 87 cases and won 51 releases, an astonishing record when one considers that once a person is convicted, there is a presumption of guilt, not of innocence. On average, each CM client had spent more than 20 years in jail.

And there is something else about Centurion that makes these numbers even more remarkable. Although it is hardly the only group dedicated to reversing wrongful convictions—there are some 75 “innocence projects” in America today—nearly all these organizations concentrate exclusively on exculpatory DNA evidence. McCloskey admits DNA is now so popular with courts that non-DNA cases are practically orphans. Centurion doesn’t forswear DNA if it is available, but it specializes in non-DNA cases like the Savannah Three’s, cases that rely on shoe leather and old-fashioned investigation rather than a single lab test. In short, Centurion takes the very toughest cases.

Even so, CM’s reputation is now so sterling that courts sometimes give its cases special attention. Lawyers who are chosen to work with CM, usually at less than half their normal fees, take great pride in doing so. 60 Minutes has featured three of CM’s cases on its show, and one of those segments was largely responsible for gaining a prisoner parole. Television and movies have come calling, but McCloskey dismissed them when a scriptwriter had him interrogating a witness and then winding up in bed with her, and in any case, McCloskey says he doesn’t have the time to fool with entertainment.

What keeps Jim McCloskey going for long days at his Princeton, New Jersey headquarters and in a grind in which he spends nearly half his life on the road, often in the bleakest American backwaters, is not the search for notoriety. It is an awful knowledge he bears: He knows the justice system is often corrupt. He knows police and prosecutors and witnesses sometimes lie to get convictions. He knows innocent men are spending their lives behind bars, even when the system realizes they are innocent. He knows that, despite the presumption of innocence, most people—most jurors—have such faith in law enforcement and prosecutorial judgment that there is often a presumption of guilt instead. More specifically, he knows the Savannah Three are innocent. “I have never encountered a case where it was so obvious that one man, let alone three, were arrested without any credible evidence and were convicted,” he says.

So McCloskey headed down to Savannah, as he had headed into so many communities before, to free them. But he also headed down to save himself as much as to save them.

The journey that took Jim McCloskey to prisons and courtrooms was a long and often dark one, though to look at him he hardly seems like the kind of guy who pounds the meanest streets in America, confronts some of the toughest folks and stares down some of the most intractable prosecutors and police officers. There is something cherubic about him, and he bears a faint resemblance to the old Warner Bros. star Pat O’Brien, who specialized in bighearted Irish priests and cops. People describe him as kind looking, the sort of guy who makes you feel good, though he would be the first to tell you looks can be deceiving.

He had an idyllic upbringing. He was born in Philadelphia 71 years ago into Irish aristocracy. His great-uncle Matt McCloskey owned a large construction firm that built the Spectrum and Veterans Stadium, among other landmarks. Uncle Matt contributed so much to the Democratic Party that he became its national treasurer and was then appointed ambassador to Ireland by President Kennedy. By that time, Jim’s father was an executive in McCloskey Construction, and Jim was known to his friends as Matt, after the family patriarch. The only shadow on the family arrived in 1947, when Jim was five. His mother took to her bed one Friday with flu-like symptoms and awoke on Sunday paralyzed by polio. The night she was diagnosed, Jim’s father, who never drank, got drunk. It was the last time the family let its spirits flag.

He attended Haverford High School, in a Philadelphia suburb, where despite being small and spindly he was a decent athlete, and then attended Bucknell, where he eked by with a dream of becoming a successful business executive, the same dream harbored by just about all his friends and frat brothers. What his best friend in college, Joe Elliott, remembers is that McCloskey was always the class jester. McCloskey admits, “I wanted to be the center of attention. I wanted to be liked. I would do anything to get a laugh.”

But even as he was amusing his classmates, McCloskey was suffering an internal crisis. He realized he had wanted so badly to be accepted, to conform to the group, that he had lost his identity. He had become, as he now puts it, “inauthentic.” So he made a resolution—a lifelong resolution. He determined that henceforth he was going to be “my own man.” That’s why he gave up his business aspirations and did something that baffled his friends. He joined the Navy at the very time the war in Vietnam was raging. That was his first departure from the settled path. It wouldn’t be his last.

After McCloskey decided to take the Savannah Three case in 2009, he and Paul Henderson, his chief investigator, spent months over the next three and a half years talking to 125 people in 17 states to accumulate new evidence. Henderson is a crusty, idiosyncratic, chain-smoking former newspaper crime reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at the Seattle Times for a three-part series that exculpated an innocent man convicted of rape. (Henderson also found the actual perpetrator.) That made him the go-to guy for the wrongly accused in the Northwest. But he suffered from ADD, got itchy at the paper and wound up opening his own private-investigation office. He was recommended to McCloskey in 1987 to work a California case, the first of many, and then joined the Centurion staff in 1996 and worked there until his retirement in 2011. Henderson and McCloskey often took to the field together, tracking down witnesses and knocking on doors, and they did so again in the Savannah case.

Of course many of those witnesses had no desire to talk with McCloskey, so he had to use subterfuge. He befriended a former Savannah policeman who had served time for protecting drug dealers and got permission from him to use his name when he approached other policemen. That’s how McCloskey gained access to the original investigating officer of the Savannah Three, Harvey Middleton, whom McCloskey tracked down in Miami Beach, where Middleton was working as a cop. McCloskey found the woman who had testified about Jones’s desire to kill a black man, in a small town in North Carolina. He found a cabdriver who had seen the three arrive at Tops, the club’s bouncer, fellow soldiers from their outfit, even a waitress from the Golden Corral. In one two-week period alone he drove 2,100 miles, crisscrossing Georgia, North Carolina and Florida.

In many ways McCloskey is an anomaly—an old-fashioned investigator in a newfangled age. He never uses a computer. When he finishes an interview, he drives a block away, pulls his car to the side of the road and writes meticulous notes. He is studiously organized. “Deliberate and organized to the teeth” is how Paul Henderson describes him, so that even his toiletries are neatly laid out in his hotel bathroom. He is notoriously fearless, usually showing up at a witness’s house unannounced. Nothing stops him, not even when a witness’s husband greeted him at the door with a German shepherd and a revolver. (McCloskey had had the temerity to ask the man’s permission to ask his wife one last question.) And perhaps above all, he is relentless. “When they take a case,” attorney Peter Camiel says, “the case doesn’t end until the client is out or the client passes away.”

For the Savannah Three, McCloskey and Henderson had done their due diligence, whittling their list of interviewees to 22 witnesses they intended to call at the evidentiary hearing, should they get one. But there was one witness they had yet to find: the Reverend James White. In December 2009, McCloskey flew to Georgia and talked to White’s friends, his relatives, his former neighbors, even his fellow preachers, leaving his card behind when they said they didn’t know where White was but never telling them why he wanted to find him. Several weeks passed. Then, on December 23, McCloskey got a call. “Do I know you?” White asked, thinking McCloskey might be a bill collector. McCloskey explained that he was researching the Savannah Three case. White told him to call back after the holidays. McCloskey did White one better. That January he again flew down to Georgia, where a former pastor of White’s told him White and his wife were homeless and living in a Super 8 motel in White’s old hometown of Newnan. McCloskey spotted them in the motel parking lot, was told by White to come back in an hour (McCloskey staked out the hotel from the McDonald’s next door), then sat down with White and his wife, Suzette, who “sagged” when McCloskey introduced himself and mentioned the crime. They talked mainly about Scripture, not the Savannah Three. “He was so kind,” White later said. “I felt free to talk to him.”

What McCloskey did not know is that James White had been, in White’s words, a “haunted” man ever since the Savannah Three trial. He had seen the perpetrators for only five seconds at most, at a distance of more than 70 feet, at an intersection in the dark of night lit only by a single streetlamp. He had initially identified neither the car nor the men—saying only that their car looked like the murderers’ car and that their clothes were like the murderers’ clothes. Still, over the years, he thought about his testimony a lot. Suzette, the only one who knew about his doubts, pressured him to recant, even threatening to divorce him if he didn’t. Instead, he quit his job and moved from Savannah back to Newnan. He suffered a series of strokes and a heart attack that confined him to a wheelchair. “I’m sick because I done worry myself to death,” he says. And what he worried about was having given false testimony.

But it wasn’t easy for him to make that admission, especially since he felt the real murderers were still at large. McCloskey returned to Newnan in March to continue their conversation in his hotel room, but White failed to show. Suzette said he had just undergone surgery, which he had, but McCloskey now insisted that the soldiers would be “crucified” if White didn’t speak to him. So White and Suzette agreed to lunch the next day at an Olive Garden, and it was then that White finally uttered the words McCloskey had longed to hear: He had lied. Then McCloskey left, but before he did, he asked if White and Suzette would pose with him for a photograph, which they did.

There was a method to that. By May, he had tracked White to a new address, in Hogansville, Georgia, where White, McCloskey and attorney Peter Camiel discussed White’s giving them a signed affidavit recanting his testimony. Time passed. White disappeared again, and he wasn’t answering his cell phone. So McCloskey and Camiel returned to Georgia in January 2011 and began yet another search for James White. No one seemed to know where he had gone. As a last resort, they got an address for one of White’s sons, Dante, in LaGrange, Georgia, just south of Newnan. When they arrived, a young man answered the door and told them Dante was out, which is when McCloskey pulled out the photograph from the Olive Garden and said he was a friend of the Whites’. At that, Dante suddenly appeared from behind the door and gave them his parents’ new address, in McDonough, Georgia, which is where McCloskey finally got the notarized affidavit that would provide the spark for the evidentiary hearing, still more than two years away. “See, I told you Jim would find us,” Suzette said when she opened the door.

Once McCloskey got White’s affidavit, he filed a request for public records and received 600 pages of documents about the case from the Savannah police. In those records, McCloskey found something startling. On February 1, 1992, many hours after the murder, Officer Ben Herron of the Savannah police department had filed a report of an interview with a witness at a housing project just minutes from the crime scene. The witness claimed to have seen two white men in a car at one A.M. with semi-automatic weapons who said they were looking for black people to kill. By that time, the defendants were long in jail. But no one from the police or the prosecution had bothered to give this report to the defense attorneys before the trial, so it remained buried in the file until McCloskey unburied it. In short, apparently other men were roaming Savannah’s streets that night, and these men had ill intent.

When McCloskey joined the Navy in 1964, he asked to be posted to Japan because, he says, he had once seen a short film on Tokyo nightlife and was intrigued. He spent 18 months as a communications officer in Yokosuka and another year heading a transmitter detail in Totsuka-ku. But it wasn’t so much the service that affected his life as the romance. At the PX in Yokosuka, he met Miyoshi (not her real name), a beautiful Japanese girl, and, he says, “something just clicked. I absolutely fell in love with her.” Within a month he was living at her house off-base. She would bathe him, teach him sexual secrets, travel the country with him. For the first time he thought about marriage. Then she told him she was going to the United States for a 30-day tour. On the night she was leaving, she called him tearfully from the dock and asked that he come see her. He was on duty and couldn’t. As the days passed, McCloskey tried to contact her in the States, to no avail. When the month was over and she hadn’t returned, McCloskey, distraught, went to see her mother, who gave him shattering news: The girl had been betrothed to another seaman, who had left the service, and she had gone to America to marry him. “I was absolutely devastated, crushed,” he says. “I’ve never been so bleak and dark in my life.” Even now he bears a deep scar from the woman he calls the love of his life.

Trying to heal, he took up with another Japanese woman, who followed him to Totsuka, but there wasn’t the same ardor, and he was growing bored with his station. So early in 1966 he volunteered to go to Vietnam. This time he abandoned his Japanese girlfriend, with terrible consequences that haunt him to this day. Just before he left, she told him she was pregnant and in love and hoped to marry him, but McCloskey insisted she get an abortion, which she did, reluctantly. And then, burdened by guilt, he went to Vietnam. He never saw her again.

Vietnam taught him two lessons. During training at Camp Pendleton in California before his tour of duty, he and 125 of his fellow sailors engaged in an exercise in which they were held “prisoner” in black boxes by a group of Green Berets. Even though they knew they would be released in 24 hours, 25 of them signed “confessions.” “It was,” says McCloskey, “my first lesson in how easily the spirit could be broken,” which is why he doubts confessions now. When he landed in Vietnam in October 1967, he became an advisor to the South Vietnamese junk fleet. And there came the second lesson. It was while he was patrolling Vietnamese waters, McCloskey says, seeing our allies butcher Viet Cong captives and our own military inflate body counts, that he first came to doubt authority. Despite his disillusionment, he received a Bronze Star. Then he left the service, with very little idea of what he wanted to do next and no more whole than when he had joined. The journey had only just begun.

The evidentiary hearing for the Savannah Three was held at the Telfair County courthouse, Telfair being a county that grows prisons. The boys’ parents were there, along with Jones’s half-brother, Dominic Lucci’s uncle, Dawn Burgett and two of her old bridesmaids. And of course so were the petitioners themselves, in white prison jumpsuits and shackles, carrying plastic bags with sandwiches, looking older, heavier, more somber and, in Jones’s case, grayer than they had been. The main event of that first session was the testimony of James White, who was wheeled to the stand wearing a black polo shirt with a gold squiggle over the right breast, a purple tie and white loafers. He is a huge man, bullnecked, with snaggle teeth and a deep, gravelly voice like a rhythm-and-blues singer, which is what he was before he found religion. And now, publicly, he admitted, “I lied about certain things,” but insisted that before the trial he had told the police and the prosecutors his misgivings about identifying the men. They insisted, he claimed, threatening him with perjury because he had said the suspects looked like the murderers at a preliminary hearing. And he told of the anonymous telephone calls he received and the pressure from the black community, and of his fears that his daughters would be raped. And he told about how he had wanted redemption all these years, but the opportunity presented itself only when McCloskey appeared, and he called him “an angel from God.” When he left the stand, several of the family members hugged him.

The rest of day one and all of day two were anticlimactic. An expert in “visual science” testified that at a distance of 72 feet—the distance at which White had seen the car—with a weak streetlamp and with the perpetrators wearing headgear that obscured their faces and with only a few seconds before they sped away, it would have been “humanly impossible” for White to have seen the murderers. A psychologist from Emory University added that “post-event factors,” including television coverage, might have affected White’s identification and that White’s identification had mysteriously become more precise over time, from a possibility to a certainty. It was, he said, “highly unlikely he [White] could make a satisfactory identification.” Thus was James White’s testimony, on which the entire conviction hung, not only recanted but impugned.

Then came the defense attorneys from the first trial, who discussed the racial climate at the time, which was so hot the trial judge asked that the National Guard be put on alert should the Savannah Three be acquitted; and the policemen who first interrogated the suspects, each of whom told similar stories that could not have been rehearsed; and Detective Middleton, who had been a young black officer on his first homicide case, admitting that his notes on White’s interview the night of the crime contained no positive IDs or any identifying characteristics; and Ben Herron, the policeman who had taken the statement about white men brandishing weapons and threatening to kill blacks after the suspects had been incarcerated. All in all, it was a good day for the prisoners and a good day for Jim McCloskey.

Back in 1967, out of the Navy and at loose ends, McCloskey enrolled in the Thunderbird Graduate School for International Management in Glendale, Arizona. But before he did, he drove to Utah, to the last address he had for Miyoshi, only to learn that her husband had reenlisted and they were now living in Yokohama. Back in Japan, working as a business consultant, McCloskey phoned her. They met in Tokyo and rekindled their romance over the following 18 months. But she had a young son by this time, and when McCloskey urged her to get a divorce and marry him, she said she couldn’t. “It was Madame Butterfly in reverse” is how McCloskey describes it. Shattered once, he was shattered again. “That was structural damage,” he says. It made it impossible for him to trust women, and he admits he fell into a life of debauchery that continued for decades.

But even though he was emotionally ravaged, he stayed in Japan for the next five years, advising American companies. He learned yet another lesson that would come in handy when he was working to free prisoners: “Take the long-term view. The Japanese have almost unlimited patience.” When the consultancy for which he worked was sold to a conglomerate, McCloskey decided it was time to leave. To the Japanese, he knew, he would always be a gaijin—an outsider—and he missed America. So back he went to Philadelphia, living with his divorced brother and hunting for a job.

He got one with another consulting firm called the Hay Group, again largely advising American businesses wanting to make inroads in Japan, and he was successful. But he knew this was not the life he had promised himself when he made his graduation resolution at Bucknell. He says he felt hollow inside. He even started to attend church for the first time since childhood, looking for an answer to his malaise. And he kept being reminded of a Japanese adage: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. McCloskey wanted to be that nail.

He was a lost man, a broken man. Nothing fulfilled him. Though he mentioned it to no one, he began reading Scripture, and one Saturday night he turned randomly to a page in the Bible and found Jesus’s last words to Peter: “When you were young, you walked where you would. When you are older, another will take you, perhaps where you don’t want to go.” It came as a revelation. Knowing he was going where he didn’t want to go, he walked into the office on Monday morning and resigned. His boss convinced him to stay another year to finish what he had started, but at 37 McCloskey felt he had finally found himself. More startling, he decided to enroll in the Princeton Theological Seminary and become a Presbyterian minister.

It wasn’t your typical religious conversion. He threw a going-away party for himself and hired two strippers, and there was always a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on his dormitory windowsill. And he wasn’t your typical seminarian. In the second year, each student had to choose fieldwork, and McCloskey, trying to be that nail, decided against a hospital or a church, which is where most students wound up. He chose Trenton State Prison and not only Trenton State but its “Vroom” wing, where the behavior problems were housed. It was ugly—his introduction was a prisoner who screamed invectives at him—but he felt exhilarated. On the first day he entered the tier, in the fall of 1980, a junkie and lifer named Jorge De Los Santos, with long hair and wearing only boxer shorts, approached him and professed his innocence of the murder he was convicted of. Nicknamed Chiefie because he had been a leader in the Newark projects where he’d lived, De Los Santos told McCloskey that he had been framed by a jailhouse snitch named Richard Delli Santi, who testified that De Los Santos had confessed in jail. Chiefie begged McCloskey to look into his case. “Are you telling me this guy lied?” McCloskey asked naively. “That’s exactly what I’m fucking telling you,” Chiefie answered.

McCloskey took Chiefie’s trial transcript to a friend’s house during Thanksgiving and spent the holiday reading all 2,000 pages of it. He concluded that not only was Chiefie framed but that he, McCloskey, was going to take a year’s leave from the seminary to prove it. He called it a Christmas gift to Chiefie, but he knew it was really a gift to himself. For the first time in his life, he said, he had a real sense of mission.

So Jim McCloskey sold his car and his house and moved into a room in the Princeton home of an octogenarian widow named Mrs. Yeatman, and with money he had saved from Hay, he hired an investigator (from the Yellow Pages) and a lawyer named Paul Casteleiro (who is still with Centurion 33 years later), but he decided to take on the informant, Delli Santi, himself. He quickly discovered that Delli Santi was a professional in relaying alleged jailhouse confessions. He had even ratted out his own cousin. (Coincidentally, McCloskey’s father had been falsely accused of demanding bribes from subcontractors of McCloskey Construction, and he was a living ghost until he was cleared.) It was through Delli Santi’s aunt that McCloskey tracked him down and got him to admit he had lied about Chiefie and had lied at the trial when he said he hadn’t testified in any other case. McCloskey also found out the prosecution knew he had lied. On that basis, Chiefie received an evidentiary hearing in March 1983 and was released that July. McCloskey took Chiefie, who had been in prison eight years, out for a banana split and then returned alone to Mrs. Yeatman’s for a bourbon, “feeling pretty good.”

Day three of the evidentiary hearing consisted largely of witnesses refuting the testimony of Sylvia Wallace, who had claimed Mark Jones had told her on the morning of January 31 that he was going to kill a black man. (It turned out Jones wasn’t even on the base January 31.) Two career Army men testified that Wallace had given them conflicting accounts of Jones’s statement, and a longtime soldier and Hinesville policeman testified that Wallace had dissembled when she said she had approached him to tell him about Jones’s intent. “She lied completely about everything,” he said. Yet another witness, an Army friend of Jones’s, said the prosecution had pressured him to say Jones was a racist even though Jones had never made a racist statement to him. If Jones had, the friend said, he would have reported him to his superiors.

After a lifetime of doubt and dissatisfaction, McCloskey said, it all came together for him in 1983. He had graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, Chiefie had been freed, and through Chiefie he had met two other lifers who professed their innocence and asked for his help. And then he had a dream. He was on a riverbank in Vietnam, watching a boat crowded with people, and the boat began to sink. Out of the blue, a helicopter arrived and rescued the passengers. McCloskey took it as an omen: He was ordained to rescue others.

He took on the cases of Chiefie’s two lifers and the case of a third prisoner—all of whom were eventually freed. He had no money but got free housing from Mrs. Yeatman—he laughs and says he’s the only person who chose to live in Princeton because it was halfway between Trenton State Prison and Rahway State Prison—and he was getting donations from his church and from old high school and college friends. He said he was driving to a law firm to set up a nonprofit organization to raise money for the cause when the name came to him. He would call his group Centurion after the Roman soldier who declared at the foot of Jesus’s cross, “Surely this one is innocent.”

For the next five years McCloskey made it up as he went along. He drove a 1975 VW Rabbit and earned between $6,000 and $7,000 a year. In fact, he was Centurion’s only employee. But the prisoner releases were gaining Centurion press attention, and letters from convicts began to pour in. There was one letter, not from a prisoner but from a woman who had recently moved from California to Connecticut; she had read about Centurion and wanted to help. Her name was Kate Germond, and she wound up volunteering to sit in McCloskey’s room in Mrs. Yeatman’s house and triage the letters he got. That was in 1986. Twenty-seven years later she is still at Centurion, now as McCloskey’s partner, and it is she as much as anyone who brings the cases to McCloskey’s attention as well as taking on cases of her own. Essentially, they split the primary workload.

Centurion has come a long way since Chiefie. These days there is a new office in Princeton, a staff of eight and an annual budget of $1.25 million for the 19 active cases that CM is investigating. A lot of that money is raised by a onetime Wall Street wunderkind named Jay Regan, who had his own scrape with a wrongful conviction. In 1989 Regan, the managing partner of a hedge fund named Princeton/Newport Partners, was tried for stock fraud by then U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani, convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. Three years later, the conviction was overturned, and Regan, with firsthand experience of how the system can malfunction, sought out McCloskey to help CM raise funds by introducing him to Wall Street titans. One of them, Edward Stern, a real estate magnate whose family had owned the Hartz Mountain pet company, has put up nearly all the money for the Savannah Three case—the investigation and legal proceedings of which have cost $363,000.

There was a time when CM might not have survived McCloskey. After a bout with prostate cancer in 2008 (“It slowed me down for two weeks or so,” he says) and a heart attack in 2012, McCloskey has drawn up a succession plan, though he doesn’t contemplate stepping down until he is at least 75. CM has just hired a new investigator, as well as a development director, Nick O’Connell, who is the son of recent CM exoneree Frank O’Connell. One could say things have never looked so rosy—save for one thing.

On the last day of the evidentiary hearing, David Lock took the stand. Lock had been the prosecutor of the Savannah Three case, and he was clearly invested in their guilt. Lock looked like a pompous Southern lawyer: the beige seersucker suit, the jowls and potbelly, the red Vandyke and the glasses. He sounded like one too, with a basso voice basted in a deep Southern accent. But as Centurion attorney Peter Camiel began his examination, Lock quickly began to wilt, smiling uncomfortably, fidgeting, even at one point twirling in his chair so his back was to the observers. Lock insisted he had never pressured White, that White had told him he could identify the defendants as the murderers, though that ID was not essential to his case, that the Herron memo was “extraneous” to the case and that the reason Ken Gardiner’s car contained virtually no gunshot residue was because the weapons were fired out the window. But he also admitted there was no forensic evidence and that he might have overplayed the Dungeons & Dragons motive, which left no motive whatsoever. By the time Lock’s testimony ended, at 11:52 that morning, Centurion was pretty sure it had proven its case.

That didn’t answer the question of who killed Stanley Jackson that January night in 1992. When it investigates, Centurion always tries to find the actual perpetrators, and in 12 of its 51 cases it has. The Savannah Three case, however, was tough, in part because several people had motives. By one account, Jackson’s stepson had threatened to kill Jackson after he’d beaten the boy’s mother shortly before he was shot. And there was Jackson’s cocaine habit. McCloskey speculated that Jackson might have been killed by the Jivens gang for welshing on drug payments, so he wrote to Sammy Lee Gadson, a Jivens enforcer who was serving a life sentence for murder in a federal medical facility in Springfield, Missouri. Gadson wrote back that the three were innocent, adding, “Everybody knows who did kill Stanley Jackson,” but he refused to reveal the information for fear of retaliation. Gadson’s younger brother, who was acquitted of murder, told McCloskey the same thing: “Those boys are innocent.”

The reason the Centurion story doesn’t have as happy an ending as one might imagine is Jim McCloskey himself. He is finally fulfilled, a broken man made whole. The abortion so many years ago still plagues him, as does another by a married woman with whom he’d had an affair, as well as his wayward behavior toward women and the years he wasted following the corporate path. Despite his many friends, he is lonely, and he knows he will never have a wife or family. He has a persistent dream that seems to summarize his situation: “I’m in a social setting with my friends, and nobody wants to talk to me. I’m on the outside…and when I go to talk to them, they disperse.”

And something else troubles McCloskey—something that emanates from the very darkness of the human soul. Jim McCloskey’s faith is shaken, which may just be an occupational hazard of living in a world of injustice. For four years he had investigated the conviction of a Virginia rapist named Roger Coleman and had concluded that Coleman hadn’t committed the crime. Coleman’s last words, scribbled to McCloskey on the night of his execution, were that he was innocent. McCloskey promised him he would continue to try to prove that. Ten years passed, during which time DNA testing had improved, and McCloskey got the state of Virginia to agree to a post-execution DNA test—the first in the country. He was manning the phone in November 2005 when the result came in: Coleman was guilty. McCloskey calmly met the press and admitted he had been wrong.

But it isn’t Roger Coleman’s lie that tests Jim McCloskey’s faith. Coleman aside, Centurion’s record for selecting the innocent is exceptional. In addition, only five of the 51 prisoners it has freed have returned to jail, none of them for a capital offense. (Alas, Chiefie was one of the recidivists; he went to jail for striking his wife and was later shot to death in a vacant lot in the Bronx.) What tests him is human nature—the willingness of policemen and prosecutors to frame men for so little gain against what the men have to lose—and what tests him is a God who would let these men languish in prison for crimes they did not commit. “My clarity in belief has failed to a certain extent,” he says. “Does God care what happens in this world? And does God have influence on what happens, or is it just random?” And wondering, he cites the biblical dictum that the sun shines on both the good and the evil, and the rain comes down on both the just and unjust.

Which is all the more reason Centurion is necessary. The Savannah Three won’t know their fate for months, until the judge renders her verdict and then, if she does overturn their conviction, until the Georgia Supreme Court decides whether to uphold her decision. Meanwhile, McCloskey is off to Montgomery, Alabama, where he is testifying before a parole board in the case of Billy Ray Davis, who has spent 29 years behind bars even though the police investigator for the case told McCloskey the evidence pointed to another man. The parole board waiting room is glum. The families, mostly black and poor, sit in T-shirts and polos, grim-faced and silent, waiting for their 10- or 15-minute shift to make their case. McCloskey testifies about Davis’s upstandingness—like most Centurion clients he has a clean prison record—but the board quickly denies him parole, and McCloskey, his faith tested yet again, leaves for another investigation. Davis will have to wait another four years for a hearing.

Despite the disappointment, McCloskey will trudge on. “It’s so hard to believe there’s still somebody out there who’s so incredibly honest and dedicated,” says Mark Jones’s mother. “How does he not get discouraged?” she wonders, not knowing he has. But then she answers her own question. “He has an effect on people,” she says. “I don’t know that it makes them better or makes them rethink their lives or whatever. He’s had an effect on me.” That may be it. In the end, Jim McCloskey, who once was lost and who even now questions his faith, has a strange power to bring redemption to a world desperately in need of it.

So he endures.


Share

Playboy Social