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.”