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.