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The Truth Shall Set You Free
  • November 15, 2013 : 00:11
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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.

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read more: News, interview, issue december 2013

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