Manage episode 295323021 series 2814541
In this episode, Jim McCloskey, MDiv ’83, a lay minister and founder of Centurion, the first nonprofit dedicated to the vindication of the wrongly convicted, speaks to this question in his book, When Truth Is All You Have: A Memoir of Faith, Justice, and Freedom for the Wrongly Convicted. He shares his minister-turned-prisoner-advocate experience, which inspired author John Grisham’s book, The Guardians. Listen to Jim’s astonishing story of faith, justice, and liberation and how this work provides a beacon of hope for those seeking justice in a flawed judicial system.
Jim McCloskey spent three years as a U.S. Naval Officer, including a year in Vietnam, subsequent to graduating from Bucknell University in 1964. He spent the next 12 years working for two different management consulting companies specializing in Japanese business affairs, the first in Tokyo and the second with the Hay Group in his hometown of Philadelphia. In 1979 Jim felt a call to leave the business world and enter the ministry. In 1983, upon graduating with a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and freeing an innocent man he met as a student chaplain at Trenton State Prison, Jim founded Centurion Ministries. After 35 years, although still a member of Centurion’s Board of Trustees and still managing several cases he has been working on for years, Jim retired from the active management of Centurion’s organizational affairs in May 2015. He is co-author of When Truth Is All You Have: A Memoir of Faith, Justice, and Freedom for the Wrongly Convicted, a book about Centurion’s experiences with our nation’s criminal justice system.
Dayle Rounds (00:00:00):
Have you ever been face-to-face with the truth in such a way that you just couldn't ignore it? In this episode, you will hear from Jim McCloskey, a lay minister and founder of Centurion, the first nonprofit dedicated to freeing individuals who are wrongly incarcerated. He talks with Sushama Austin-Connor about how he met a prisoner who insisted on his innocence, and why he decided to take a year off of seminary to work full-time towards this prisoner's freedom. You will not want to miss Jim's astonishing story of faith, justice, and liberation.
[percussion music + water droplet sound]
Dayle Rounds (00:00:36):
You are listening to The Distillery at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:00:40):
Well, Jim, thanks so much for doing this. Princeton Seminary is obviously, for all the reasons, really excited to have this conversation with you and Continuing Education at Princeton Seminary. And me, of course, personally I'm just thrilled. And just, this is just a joy to be able to speak with you about your book and about Centurion Ministries, which means so much to the seminary and to me and to my family.
Jim McCloskey (00:01:05):
Well, thank you very much. So I've been looking forward to this ever since we had it scheduled with the seminary. Well, Princeton Theological Seminary has changed my life, and I might add the life of many others because it provided me with an opportunity. Although I had no idea what was around the corner of meeting the first person in whose innocence I came to believe which kicked off and inspired me to, to rather than going... ordained after I received my MDiv, which I did in 1983, to begin the work of Centurion Ministries to help free people who we believe are innocent, wrongly convicted, sentenced to life or death with pretty much no way of getting out, except for maybe our effort.
[water droplet sound]
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:02:00):
Amazing. I want to go back a little bit though, and start with life maybe right before you decided to enter seminary and going from business to seminary, what a huge deal that is. What a life changer that is. What were some of the thoughts that made you pivot from business to seminary life?
Jim McCloskey (00:02:21):
Well, I was 37 years old, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia and a working... employed by a management consulting firm in Philadelphia called Hay Associates, H-A-Y Associates. And my job was to build its business, its consulting business, with Japanese companies in the United States, and to eventually establish our office in Tokyo, Japan. The reason they hired me to do that was because I had spent the prior five or six years in Tokyo working for a Japanese joint venture consulting firm between American bank and the Japanese bank in aiding American firms, interested in entering the Japanese market. So I had that Japan background, so they brought me aboard. Everything was going well. Now, we're in the 1970s, from '74 to '79. I'm well in my thirties. And during that time the business was going well, I was making a good... you know, it was a nice salary position. I'm bringing in Japanese clients. But when you get underneath that surface, I was not happy with my personal life, with my conduct in my personal life. I had kind of gone off track. I was kind of like the prodigal son. And I was, for the first time in my adult life, I decided, you know, I got to start developing some spiritual element to my life 'cause that was lacking. And it was, there was a total void there. So I attended Paoli Presbyterian Church in Bailey, Pennsylvania, and the minister there, Dick Streeter, who is a Princeton Theological Seminary grad, I found his preaching compelling because this constant theme was to serve others, to wash the feet of others, particularly folks who did not have the advantages that we did in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the economic and social advantages that we did.
Jim McCloskey (00:04:38):
And at the same time, you know, I was hungry. The scriptures became my meat and drink rather than -- at the same time, my business aspirations were waning. I was losing interest in the business world. It wasn't real. It wasn't real to me. What became real was the truth of this, of the gospel and the scriptures. That's what was real to me. And over a period of years, slowly but surely, I was -- every Saturday, practically every Saturday night, I was in a scripture study, reading the prophets of the Old Testament and the Gospels and Paul's letters. And I saw -- this is the truth of life as I saw then. So anyway, I consulted with no one, except Dick Streeter. I didn't consult with my mother or father, although I'm very close to my family. I had a ton of friends. Because I was thinking about Dick Streeter as a minister was touching the hearts and souls of people in a transformative way, including my own.
Jim McCloskey (00:05:51):
I was touching nobody's heart and soul. I was touching my own pocketbook and the pocketbook of the company, but that was, that proved to be very unsatisfactory and unfulfilling. So I felt a call to follow in Dick Streeter's footsteps, go to the seminary and become an ordained, church, Presbyterian pastor. So that was what was going on within me and externally, internally and externally, that led me to go... Now I was going to go to Eastern Baptist, which would have been easier because it's only about a 20-minute ride from my house. And Dave said, no, Jim, if you're going to do this, you have to go to Princeton. That's where you're going to get the best education. And so I took his advice, sold my house on the Mainline, and came up to Princeton. One thing I did not sell was my 1976 Lincoln Continental Town Car. I just couldn't. I couldn't part with that. So I pulled up, I pulled up to Brown Hall, with my Lincoln Continental. People thought I was on the lam or something, but anyway, that's what brought me to the seminary.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:07:09):
Yeah. That's awesome. So you know, Jim, I feel like I learned so much about you personally in this book. [laughter]
Jim McCloskey (00:07:16):
Yeah, of course, all the good, bad, the ugly, you heard a lot. [laughter]
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:07:22):
I learned so much! There were parts where I had to stop. I was reading it aloud to my husband, Rob, who you know, and so I was reading some parts to him, and we were like, wow, we have so much to cover. But talk to me about this idea of kind of your personal conduct that you mentioned in the book that you just referred to, and that I've heard you talk about in some other interviews that I listened to as I prepared. What was going on for you? And it wasn't atypical, I don't think, in some ways to what maybe 20-somethings go through, or the kind of risks you may take, not even knowingly really; inherently we're a little more risky in our twenties. But talk to me about that personal conduct. What was life like? What were you doing? What were you up you?
Jim McCloskey (00:08:03):
Well, what I was doing was I was -- again, this is in my, well, in my twenties and in my thirties. Yeah. Yeah. I was very... let's just say promiscuous. And I had relationships with women that -- I was selfish, self-centered, I used women for my own gratification. And I came to realize that this was wrong. This was immoral. I was leading an immoral life. And, that was in contrast to the way I was raised by my mother and father. And, I didn't feel good about my, I lost my self-esteem. Who am I, what is my real identity? And, you know, I had one foot in the secular world and one foot in the spiritual world, the church world. And, you know, as an example, when I told my boss at Hay Associates -- Bill Densmore was his name, great, a great human being.
Jim McCloskey (00:09:05):
I said, Bill -- this is 19-early-79 -- I said, "Bill, I need to talk to you about something very serious." He said, "Okay." So I went into his office and I told him that I was not only leaving Hay, but I was leaving the business world to go into ministry. He said -- I'll never forget this. His first words were, "Jim. I didn't even know you went to church." So I was two people. I was one person to the secular world and another person to the spiritual church world. And it was time for me to announce to the world who I really was, and that I considered myself to be, although a deeply flawed, but nevertheless convicted Christian. And that's -- it's about time that I showed the world who I was, and not -- I didn't hide that anymore. And once I made that announcement, then it was amazing.
Jim McCloskey (00:09:58):
The reaction I got from my corporate colleagues... They were very supportive, surprised, shocked, as I found out. I'm still very close to my fraternity brothers at Bucknell, every year 20 or 25 of us get together with a golf outing up at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. And a number of them have told me that when I told them what I was doing, they were afraid that I had gone off the deep end and had lost... and they were going to lose my friendship, that somehow I was going to change, my own personality, which I didn't do. And my poor mother and father, they were, you know, they were supportive, but skeptical. You're 37, 38 years old. And you know, my mother told me, she said, Jim, you're never going to be a church pastor. You're just not cut out to do that. And as it turned out, she was right, but I didn't know that at the time. So she knew. She knew. But getting back to your question. Yes, I was -- I had descended into what I thought was an immoral life and I wanted to... I needed redemption as much as anybody else. That was part of it. And, and, and -- I wanted to really touch people's lives in a meaningful, significant transformative way. And I thought by being a church pastor, that would give me the opportunity to do that.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:11:29):
To touch people. Yeah. But you weren't without religion. So growing up in your childhood, your family is Presbyterian. Can you talk a little bit about your childhood and some of the religious upbringing and also your mother's illness and how that manifests in your spiritual life, in finding redemption and finding hope.
Jim McCloskey (00:11:53):
Right. And that's -- thank you for bringing that up. That's a good subject to talk about a little bit. First of all, when I was in grade school -- I wanted to reclaim my boyhood faith,, because it was authentic. It was real. I was a standup Christian, young boy in grade school. That was what was most important to me. And then as soon as I hit junior high, that started going south, because the most important thing to me at that point was peer pressure. I wanted to be liked and popular. And I, you know, I let myself drift in that direction. So, another element was, in deciding to leave the business world and go into ministry, I wanted to reclaim my boyhood faith. And that was inculcated into me, by my mom and dad, who were very active in the church, that my upbringing was very in the church was very important. It was the foundation that ultimately I yearned to reclaim. So that was very important.
[water droplet sound]
Jim McCloskey (00:12:55):
When I was five years old, in 1947, my mother who was 30 years old went to bed one night in June of 1947, feeling fluish -- tired, fever, whatever, body ached. She -- Su, she woke up the next morning and was paralyzed from the waist down. It was like the polio virus hit her like a bolt of lightning, and doing some research about that, that phenomenon occurred in about 10,000 men and women across the United States.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:13:35):
So out of nowhere?
Jim McCloskey (00:13:37):
Out of nowhere. Out of nowhere. Yeah. So, friends of our family -- now in those days, people were afraid that if they even came near our house, they would catch the virus. They would walk on the other side of the street. However, only one -- good friends of my parents, Katie and Tom Boyd, who were also the parents of my best friend, Tom Boyd. We lived around the corner from each other, and they offered to take me in, so my dad could get, could settle in and start to find the right resources to take care of Mom who was home-bound and paralyzed. And they took me in. Now, that was a great thing. That was a courageous thing because they didn't know, maybe I'll bring the polio virus into their home to attack their family. But nevertheless, they went way out on the limb and took me in for six months. Another family took my brother in. So I never forgot that -- what the Boyds did for me and what the [inaudible name] did for my brother. So that was kind of formative as well. Yeah.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:14:48):
Absolutely. Absolutely. So you get -- so let's go back to Princeton Seminary. So, you get to Princeton Seminary. And I, you know, I was so familiar with some of the places that you mentioned -- Route One and Library Place -- like actually, Continuing Ed offices are now on Library Place in Adams House.
Jim McCloskey (00:15:09):
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:15:09):
So I know where you are. So it was really nice to have like the visual of where everything is. So you get to Princeton Seminary and it's year two, and you're doing field education.
Jim McCloskey (00:15:19):
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:15:20):
And what happened?
Jim McCloskey (00:15:21):
All right. The first year, my junior year, I did not do field ed 'cause I just wanted to focus on the studies. In my second year, I decided to do my field education as a student chaplain at Trenton State Prison. Now, why did I do that? Why did I choose that? I don't really know why I chose that, other than I've always had an adventuresome spirit and I've never been in a prison before. Who are these people? What are they like?
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:15:53):
I mean, were there options, Jim? Like were you --
Jim McCloskey (00:15:53):
Oh yeah. Sure. I could have been a youth pastor. I didn't want any of that. I could have been assigned to a church as a student intern in a church, a hospital. There was all kinds of options available, but I chose Trenton State Prison. Joe Ravenell, the chaplain at Trenton State Prison, also a Princeton Seminary grad, had set up a program between the seminary field education department and the prison administration every year, they would bring in six or seven Princeton Seminary students to be student chaplains for the full school year. So that's what I decided to do. And then, Joe Ravenell, he assigned me to what they call the Vroom Readjustment Unit, which is a real euphemistic term for the maximum security -- people who are sent to the Vroom Readjustment Unit, they had been in trouble in whatever state prisons in New Jersey they had come from. So they put the bad boys in that prison for however long a punishment they were to serve. And that's where I was assigned. And the reason Joe -- I said, Joe, why did you send me there to this day? I'm good friends with him. He said, I'll tell you why I sent you there. Because you were cocky that I wanted to bring you down a couple of notches, one or two. And I said, well, you did a good job there, Joe. But anyway, to the Vroom Building I went. There for the -- now we're talking about September of 1980, which was the beginning of my middler year at the seminary.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:17:45):
And then you go there with another seminarian, and you guys are...
Jim McCloskey (00:17:51):
There were two of us and Joseph Checa who was a friend of mine who also lived in Brown Hall. Joe assigned him to two cell blocks and assigned me to two cell blocks. And so we would go there together. We would drive down at my very comfortable plush Lincoln Continental Towncar [laughter] which by the way, I got about seven miles per gallon. [inaudible] But the first day we went down there in September of 1980, I'm 37, 38. I've been in Vietnam. I've been all over the world. And Joseph was 28. He'd been -- he's had some secular experience, but we were both scared to death.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:18:38):
Yeah, I can imagine. Yeah, yeah.
Jim McCloskey (00:18:38):
Because, you know, they tell you, they tell stories, they are myths, this myth, that -- don't stay, don't get too close to their selves. They're locked in their cell. And we go down a cell block from cell to cell. We're wearing the collar. I looked like an Irish Catholic priest. And you just go cell to cell. You just want to make friends. And you know, they don't get any visitors, by and large.
And are you wearing a collar because they, like -- Princeton suggested it or you just decided to, or...
Jim McCloskey (00:19:10):
No, Joe Ravenell. No, it was part of the uniform, if you will, that Joe Ravenell wanted us to wear, as being student chaplains. We pulled up to the parking lot of the prison, you know -- a fence with all concertina wire. And it was such an intimidating, forbidding building. I said to Joseph, let's have a word of prayer. So we held hands, we asked God to give us a spirit of calmness and courage. And, that didn't happen. That was an unfulfilled prayer. Anyway, we walked in there and that began my student chaplaincy at Trenton State Prison and encountering a life-changing opportunity, a life-changing event where I met... One of the 40 men on the two cell blocks I was assigned was a man by the name of Jorge de Los Santos. And, he was... So I'd go, you know, cell to cell. And he was gregarious. He was friendly. He put me at ease. He was very open-hearted. He talked about himself and everything that he had done in the past, which was not murder. He was in prison for a Newark, New Jersey murder. He was convicted of an attempted robbery, which ended up to be a fatal shooting of the proprietor of a used car lot in Newark. And he was the only one, by the way, who was proclaiming his innocence.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:20:45):
I mean, I'm wondering too, before you even hear his story, is he standing out because of that openness? How, why is he standing out more than the rest of the guys on that floor? Or was that once you heard the story?
Jim McCloskey (00:20:58):
That's a good point. There was something about him. We just clicked. Our personalities just clicked because he was an engaging personality. He was friendly, open, funny. But he would also speak from his heart. He was married to Elena, a Native American Cherokee. And, you know, from day one, he said, Jim, you know, they caught me, Jim. And he said, I didn't do what I'm here for. I'm an innocent man. So that got my attention. But I also, at the same time, you know, I was under the -- oh, they all say they're innocent. Well, first of all, that's a canard. They don't all say they're innocent. He was the only one of the 40 who did say he was innocent. So, but anyway, to answer your question, he was just a gregarious, very human -- just the opposite of what I imagined a hardened murder convict would look like, or be like.
Jim McCloskey (00:22:06):
He's in his cell, hot outside, standing in front of his cell, cell bars. I could see him perfectly, standing in his shorts with his thongs on, with long brown hair, down to his shoulders. And 'Elena' was tattooed on his heart, name of his wife. And I'm standing there in my priestly garb. And, you know, we just... I had to be careful because I couldn't spend too much time with him, because that would create some problems with other inmates. And by the way, my reception there was surprisingly friendly. Most of the inmates in their cells were -- they wanted somebody to talk to.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:22:53):
Of course. Of course.
Jim McCloskey (00:22:53):
They wanted a friend, they wanted somebody who didn't judge them or in any way be critical of them, just to basically listen. There was a lot, they all wanted to say -- 'cause nobody would listen to them. [crosstalk] It was not hard for me to feel comfortable every day I went there, nor to establish some relationships and rapport with most of the inmates.
New Speaker (00:23:22):
[water droplet sound]
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:23:24):
So in those first meetings, Chiefy [de Los Santos] is sort of pushing you and challenging you and telling you his story. And you're getting -- I hear you say, "Well, I didn't believe him of course, because who would believe him?" But what changes you or changes your mind in how he is sharing the stories? He's saying, you know, actually, no, I'm actually innocent.
Jim McCloskey (00:23:45):
Yeah. Well, yeah. Well, first of all, he wasn't pushing me, but he was -- that's all he wanted -- he only wanted to talk about two things: his innocence and his wife, Elena. And he spent a lot of time. I mean -- I actually have chills right now -- because he loved her, and she was completely devoted to him. She was a hair salon person up in Newark. She had three kids by a prior relationship that she was, you know, raising. And she would visit him twice a week, for limited visits. She was an incredible woman who I got to know and really have a nice relationship with, a good friend.
Jim McCloskey (00:24:31):
But anyway, up until hitting up the cell block, I never had any involvement with the criminal justice system whatsoever. I was never asked to be on a jury. I'd never been in a courthouse before. I knew absolutely nothing. So I was bringing with me what turned out to be a complete ignorance and naiveté about our criminal justice system, in that I thought police and prosecutors were very honorable men and women who were serving the community. It was a great noble service of catching criminals and putting them away. And surely they would never suborn perjury or lie themselves, or... They wanted to catch the real people who did this, not innocent people. And the same with the judges. I held those positions -- police, prosecutors, judges -- in the highest esteem from my suburban mainline perch. And as far as I was concerned, they were there to protect and serve -- at least my white community in the suburbs. So anyway, I found it very hard to believe two things. Number one, that he was innocent. Number two, not only was he saying he was innocent, he was saying the Newark, the Essex county prosecutor's office in Newark framed him, knowingly framed him.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:26:05):
Jim McCloskey (00:26:08):
I said, "So Chiefy, are you telling me that the prosecutor himself knew that his witnesses were lying and he brought them in just to get a conviction?" He said, "That's exactly what I'm telling you." I said, "Why would they care about you?" He was a heroin addict. And he had a number of drug-related arrests, never spent any time in prison, but he was in and out of the local jails for drugs. And he was a full-blown addict, off and on over those -- you know, he was 28 years old when he got convicted for this crime. I said, "Chiefy, why should they even believe -- why should they be conspiring --" [crosstalk]
Jim McCloskey (00:26:51):
You're a throw away. He said "That's why!" He said, "Because I was an easy prey. I was an easy target for the police -- to arrest and make them look good and clearing a murder -- and for the prosecutors to get a conviction, to make their trial record good. Slowly but surely, over the next couple of months, we would talk about this. And we became close. I mean, I couldn't wait to get down there to talk to him. And secretly -- I didn't tell Joe Ravenell or anyone else -- I gave him permission to call me at 72 Library Place. Thanksgiving comes. And I said, "Look, Chiefy, I've heard your story time immemorial, you've gone, we've gone over it. Many times. I need your trial. I want to read your trial transcripts. And by the way, we were told by both the administration and Joe Ravenell -- don't get involved [crosstalk] whether it's personal or their case work.
Jim McCloskey (00:27:57):
That's a no-no. If you do, you're out of here, banned from the prison. But I was so provoked by the possibility that he might be what he's saying he is. I said, "Chiefy, there are two sides to every story. I want to get -- so I got ahold of his trial transcripts. That took some work, but I got ahold of them. And I took them home over Thanksgiving of 1980. That's all I did during the Thanksgiving holiday was read 2000 pages of transcripts. I was obsessed with them.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:28:30):
Jim McCloskey (00:28:30):
Totally into this. And so I learned that whatever -- all the details he gave me were born out by the trial transcripts. So it came to really provoke me and to say, I'm taking it to another level. Maybe this guy is innocent. All right. So come back from Thanksgiving. He knows I've read the trial transcripts. He's nervous as a cat when I approach his cell. He said, "What do you think?" I said, "Well, Chiefy, you know, you know, it backs up everything you've been telling me over the prior couple of months. He said, "Well, let me ask you." He said, "Jim, I answered a million of your questions over the last couple of months. I have a question for you." And I gulped. I said, "Oh boy." [inaudible].
Jim McCloskey (00:29:20):
He said, "Do you believe I'm innocent?" And I said, "Yeah, I do believe you're -- I don't know you're innocent, but I do believe, I believe you, Chiefy." I said, "I don't know if I believe that the prosecutors framed you, but I do believe you're innocent. Then he said to me, and it took me completely aback, he said, "What are you going to do about it?" I said, "What do you mean, what am I going to do about it? I'm a... I don't know anything about criminal justice or murders or courts of law, investigation. I'm a former businessman, and I'm now at the seminary studying church history and scriptures and...
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:30:01):
Becoming a minister!
Jim McCloskey (00:30:01):
And he said, "I've been on my knees for the last seven years, praying to God to bring somebody to me, to help free me. And whether you know it or not, and whether you like it or not, you're that man. God has sent you to my cell to liberate me, to bring me home to Elena. I'm asking you -- God works -- He said, "What are you going to do? Go back to your seminary? And, in that nice, secure little environment and pray for me? That's not going to get me out. God works through human hands. And it's your hands that I believe God has assigned to get me out of here, to free me."
Jim McCloskey (00:30:49):
I said, "Well, let me think about that, Chiefy." But it stunned me.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:30:55):
Yeah. It stunned you. It's a stunning ask, or [crosstalk].
Jim McCloskey (00:30:59):
It was a real challenge. He was challenging my faith.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:30:59):
Yes, that's what I'm thinking, right.
Jim McCloskey (00:31:03):
You claim to be a man of God. Well, what are you going to do, leave an innocent man behind and just go about your business, like, I don't even exist anymore? I mean, it was, it really got me. Were it not for that challenge, Su, I don't think I would have worked for him. He made me, he compelled me. So I got back to the seminary. And I'm praying. And again, I'm consulting with nobody, because nobody's going to believe this. And so, but I go to the scriptures and I opened them up to the book of Isaiah, where Isaiah is talking about how people go to law and they lie. And there is no justice. Truth has fallen from the public squares. The Lord wondered why there was no one to intervene to bring about justice, to find the truth. And it bothered the Lord. And so I saw that and I'm saying, is this a sign that I'm to intervene on behalf of Chiefy? I felt that it was. And so, that was a turning point, in addition to his challenge, and other factors. I said, you know, I think I'm going to take a year off and work on his behalf. I believe he's innocent. And that's what I did. That's what I did.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:32:21):
That's what you did. At that point, you're founding Centurion at this point...
Jim McCloskey (00:32:22):
No, I'm not founding Centurion. All I'm doing is taking a year off from school. I had completed three of the six semesters for a Masters of Divinity. Now we're in February of 1981. Okay. And I decided to take a year off, independent leave, from the seminary and work full-time to see if I can free him, and I could move the ball forward. And now, you know, you're a parent. Imagine -- now a year and a half before this, I told my mom and dad, I was gonna leave the business world and go into the ministry. And now here I am a year and a half later. Can you imagine if your eldest son, if your eldest son, came to you and said, Su and Rob, I've decided to take a year off from school. And I'm going to -- I believe that a former Newark heroin addict is innocent of murder, and I'm going to investigate the case and try and free him. Well, that was very, very unsettling to my parents...
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:33:33):
To say the least. Yeah, right. I don't know what I would have said.
Jim McCloskey (00:33:37):
Well, I'll tell you what my mother said.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:33:39):
What did she say?
Jim McCloskey (00:33:39):
My mother said, "Jimmy, this is going to be Vietnam all over again. I could never sleep for that year you were over there. [crosstalk] And now, you're going to go investigate a murder, which you know nothing about, in a city like Newark, which, you know, you've never been there before, for God's sake. What do you know about it? And I'm going to worry about you every single night." Now, I had not thought of that. I didn't put myself in my mother's --
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:34:07):
No, of course. But it's natural. The reaction is natural.
Jim McCloskey (00:34:07):
I said, "Mother, I completely understand, but I got to do it. I just have to do it." And so ultimately they supported me. But they were obviously very concerned for my safety.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:34:20):
Of course. Of course.
Jim McCloskey (00:34:22):
So then, I announced to Jim McCord [crosstalk] -- when you take an independent leave of absence, you get an exit interview tp the president of the seminary. At that time, it was Jim McCord.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:34:38):
That's so intimidating. Actually, I looked up the dates just to see who the president was at that time. And I was like, how intimidating is that? You had to go see Jim McCord?
Jim McCloskey (00:34:45):
Did you know him at all? Or have you ever had any encounters with him?
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:34:52):
I just know of him, and that's [inaudible]
Jim McCloskey (00:34:52):
Right. He had this deep voice. It was like God was talking down to you, you know? So, I'm ushered into his office for this exit interview and..."Jim, what church are you -- where are you gonna -- what church you go to serve while you're off?" So then I explained to him what I was doing. [laughter] Now, what I didn't know. So he had a button at his desk. He would press that button. And that was his secretary's signal to come in and get this person out of there.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:35:24):
Jim McCloskey (00:35:24):
Oh yeah. So, no sooner do I tell him what I'm going to do than I'm ushered out of his office. And he sends me over to Dean Mass's office and I told him the same thing and they both want to know -- are you sure what you're doing is legal? Is that legal, Jim? I said, yeah, it's legal. Nothing illegal about it. Anyway, that was my exit. And then I moved in -- because when you have a leave of absence, you can't live in the seminary.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:35:55):
The dorms, right.
Jim McCloskey (00:35:55):
So I moved out of Brown Hall and then found a place to live on 72 Library Place.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:36:01):
So cool. Yeah.
Jim McCloskey (00:36:02):
It was a home owned and occupied by a lovely, delightful octogenarian, Mrs. Yateman, and in exchange for me doing errands for her, I had a second floor bedroom, free of cost, which turned out to be the first headquarters for Centurion Ministry.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:36:20):
Jim McCloskey (00:36:21):
My bedroom in that home.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:36:22):
In that home -- on Library Place. Yeah.
Jim McCloskey (00:36:26):
When you turn onto library place, it's the first house fully facing Library Place. 72. It's a white Victorian home.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:36:37):
Yeah. I know the street. I passed by -- pre-COVID I passed by all the time. Yeah. So talk... Finish your thought and talk about the end of Chiefy's case. And then I want to get to some of your work when Centurion is kind of up and running.
Jim McCloskey (00:36:53):
Right. Right. Well, so I took that year off and ended up doing several things. I became the investigator. And so I did two things. One is -- well, three things. One is to investigate the case.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:37:08):
Like yourself. Like you are [crosstalk] ...to be clear, because I was so impressed with your true crime investigative skills.
Jim McCloskey (00:37:17):
Well, you know, it just, you know, it... All it is, is common sense, you know. You know, you just knock on people's doors and you're trying to get them to -- one leads to another, you know. My main purpose, one of the main things was, there were two... Chiefy was convicted based on two prosecution witnesses. One of them was Pat Cuccillo, who claimed that when he was driving his tow truck by the used car lot, he heard shots and he saw Chiefy and another man he identified as Lamont Harvey (nickname Grasshopper) flee the used car lot. So it was an eye witness, the claim to see Chiefy and this other man flee. So they arrest Chiefy based on that eyewitness account. Then, now he's in the Essex County jail awaiting trial, based on that one eyewitness account, and what the police did, which I was able to prove, to the satisfaction of a federal judge, they placed a career criminal Richard Dellasante on that tier, to enable Richard Dellasante to talk with Chiefy, and come into the court, to his trial and say that Chiefy confessed the crime to him. It's called the jailhouse confession. So those two, those were the two witnesses against him.
Jim McCloskey (00:38:38):
There was a lot of work to do in terms of investigation. And I finally met up with Richard Dellasante and... About a year after I started this work... And he was in the Hudson County jail at the time. And I visited with him for two days straight. And by that time, he had agreed to talk to me and tell me the whole story. He was a lifelong informant for the Essex County prosecutor's office. He testified at trial that he's never testified in any other situation against anybody. He did this because what Chiefy did was a bad thing. And he thought he should come forward. When in fact, he had testified in numerous other cases, both before the Chiefy del Los Santos trial and after. He was a professional snitch. And the payment for all his different testimonies by the prosecutor was -- he never went to prison. They would excuse his crimes. So he was free to be out there, to be a thief and an arsonist. And all this, that, and the other, he did all sorts of crimes. But he would do the bidding of the prosecutor, particularly this one detective in the prosecutor's office, Ronnie Donahue. He would -- Donahue was his handler. And it was Donahue put them on the tier with Chiefy and told him what to do, and he would do it. But he got tired of being their pawn. He just got tired of them using him for 10 years of doing this work. And so also, he had testified in the same manner, jailhouse confession against his first cousin, Danny Dellasante. He put Danny away another murder. [crosstalk]
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:40:30):
There's so many characters.
Jim McCloskey (00:40:32):
Yeah. And I got to know the Dellasante family. Dotty Dellasante, Danny's mother, and his aunt. Richard [inaudible]. Anyway, she kept asking Richard, please talk to this Jim McCloskey, you got to talk to him. If you help him out with Chiefy, maybe that'll help free my son, your first cousin, Danny Dellasante. He resisted for a year. And he finally agreed to talk to me. And then he told me the whole story. And so, he led us to other cases where he had in fact testified and helped the police prior to Chiefy's case. And then, we got an evidentiary hearing, and Pat Cuccillo, I met him. And, you know, one of the things that the trial prosecutor, Kevin Kelly, told the jury was, "Ladies --" (this was the summation), "Ladies and gentlemen, you heard Pat Cuccillo's eye witness account. You heard Richard Dellasante. So I think these two men, they didn't know each other, that they independently, they come forward and they give this incriminating evidence against Mr. del Los Santos. They're very credible. There's no reason to think that they're lying."
Jim McCloskey (00:41:41):
When in fact, my investigation, I discovered -- and it's got the documentation to prove it -- Richard del Los Santos and Pat Cuccillo went to grade school together. They were fast friends. They were both drug addicts. They would shoot up together, you know, so we were able to establish that. So we have an evidentiary hearing in federal court in March of 1983. Now in February of '82, I finished my one-year leave of absence. I returned to the seminary to finish my Master of Divinity degree. And I found a great lawyer to work for, with me, on behalf of Chiefy. Paul Castalero. He was instrumental in freeing Chiefy with me. And Paul, leading up to the evidentiary hearing in March of '83, the judge, the federal judge gave Paul authority to go into the prosecutor's files and see what information [crosstalk] files that might be exculpatory or go towards this, a bad conviction.
Jim McCloskey (00:42:49):
And Paul discovered in Kevin Kelly's own handwriting in the file, he was the trial prosecutor, that he said Richard Dellasante had a habit of giving testimony. So he knew [crosstalk] that he had given that testimony in prior instances, and he had him do it anyhow. He hadn't yet under direct examination, Dellasante, under Kevin Kelly's direct examination, testified that he's never done this before. Kelly knew he was lying. He wanted to present him as a, you know, as just a concerned citizen, even though he's in county jail. And I talked with Kevin Kelly on two different occasions. And on the second occasion when I told him, "Hey, Kevin, I still think it might not -- I tell you that I'm working for Chiefy... If I can convince Kevin Kelly that through no fault of his own, that he convicted an innocent man, maybe he can help me free the man he convicted.
Jim McCloskey (00:43:51):
That was my idealistic naiveté. Well, when I told him what I had on... I met him one time, then a year later I met him another time. I telephoned him. And he got very, very angry with me and said, "Jim, I don't care if 10 people confess that they did this crime and not Chiefy -- he's guilty." And he hung up on me. But, at the evidentiary hearing, Paul Castalaro really unmasked him for his [crosstalk]. The judge found that as a fact in his opinion, which ended up freeing and exonerating Chiefy in July of 1983. So by July of 1983, Chiefy was free and exonerated. I had finished my MDiv degree. And... but by that time I had met two or actually three other New Jersey inmates who Chiefy introduced me to, by the way, in whose innocence I had come to believe. So now I have a choice. Do I get -- do I go on and get ordained as a church pastor? Or do I set up a nonprofit organization, which I ultimately called Centurion Ministries to work to free innocent people at present? Obviously I chose the latter and set up Centurion.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:45:19):
So from the beginning, you take on these two cases and... Talk more about like the trajectory for Centurion.
Jim McCloskey (00:45:27):
First of all, I named it Centurion after the centurion at the foot of the cross in the gospel of Luke, who looked up in chapter 23, verse 47, and said, "Surely this one was innocent," looking up at the crucified Christ. That's where the name comes from. So, but anyway, yeah, so I set up and I'm still working out of Mrs. Yateman's house, and long story short, of the three people whose cases I took on after Chiefy was freed, by 19 -- by November of '86, I was able to free two of those three people. The third one I freed two years later, 1989, but the seminal case that really puts Centurion and me on the map, on the map, was Paul Castalero, again, and I, he's a solo practitioner out of Hoboken. He and I worked for Nate Walker. Nate was convicted and given life plus 50 years for an Elizabeth, New Jersey sexual assault and kidnapping, and Paul and I together met with the Union County and Elizabeth, New Jersey, we met with a senior prosecutor there, and we had several discussions. Some of them pretty intense because by this time, 11 years after Nate was convicted in '75, this is now '86, 1986. We provoked that senior prosecutor in that office. We said, look, 11 years ago, when the victim was assaulted in this manner, a rape kit was taken from her. And there's a vaginal swab taken from her as part of the rape kit. If semen is on that swab, if you could find that swab. Now this is before DNA now, right?
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:47:27):
Yep. I remember.
Jim McCloskey (00:47:30):
Can you send that to a lab to see if they could determine the blood type of the semen on that swab? And he agreed to do that. Richard Reibart was his name. Richard Reibart, 11 years earlier, was the prosecutor that put Nate Walker away. Now he's a senior executive in that office and I give him full credit. He found that swab and he sent it down the FBI crime lab and they came back and said, the donor of this semen on that swab has blood type B. Nate Walker, and the victim, have blood type A, because some of her vaginal fluids might've got mixed up there. So it completely exonerated Nate Walker. We freed him, we freed him in November, early November of '86. And, I'm still working alone out of Mrs. Yateman's house. This got us a lot of publicity nationwide because at that time, very few --I mean, this was unheard of, exonerating innocent --
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:48:40):
No, 'cause it's pre- what many people may know of, innocence movements and the innocence projects. Yeah.
Jim McCloskey (00:48:50):
Exactly. So, next thing I know Nate Walker and I are on the Today Show with Bryant Gumbel. And this was obviously seen nationwide. Now letters are pouring in from all over, from state prisons all over the United States because nobody else was doing this at the time. And, asking me, Centurion, to help free them like you did Mr. Walker. And not only that, but... And also Kate Germand, who is still, was my lifelong partner at Centurion. She had just moved to New York with her husband and she read about the Nate Walker exoneration in New York Times, she saw a photo of me in my bedroom with transcripts spilling all over the place. And she said, this man needs help. And besides that, she had always fancied herself as an investigator. She, as we were in our generation, we were raised on Perry Mason. She idolized Paul Drake, the investigator for Perry Mason, not Perry Mason himself. So anyway, she contacted me and here we are some 30 years later still working together.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:50:15):
[crosstalk] so many people over the years, working with you, with the passion and the vocational pull to this work for people who are around you as well is incredible.
Jim McCloskey (00:50:26):
Absolutely. We, you know, in the movie The Field of Dreams that said, if you build it, they will come. You know, so many good, talented, dedicated justice-seeking people, volunteers, staff members. You know, Centurion now... Let's see, Kate joined me in January of '87, 13 plus... Some 33, 34 years later. We have a staff of 14 paid employees, lawyers, investigators, case development people. We get over 1200 letters a year from people asking us to, to serve on their, to work on their cases. Now, not all of them are innocent, of course. The vetting process is a real large undertaking. But anyway, yes, so, so many -- and not only that, but you know, we've gone national and have been, ever since Nate Walker was freed, people who saw Nate and me on the Today Show, one of them contacted me, Ozell Brandley, his brother Clarence was on Texas death row, was going to be executed three months later. And that got the attention of Kate and me. And we decided, we got the record and transcripts and all that. So we got to do something here. I've never been to Texas, never worked at death row case. We just went where the current took us, and the current took us to Texas. And then many other states after that.
[water droplet sound]
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:52:01):
How many exonerees are there? What [inaudible]
Jim McCloskey (00:52:06):
We have taken, since I started this work in 1981, early '81, really, we have freed 65 people. And collectively -- we only take cases where somebody has been given a life or death sentence for either a murder and/or sexual assault. They're the only cases we take on, the most serious cases. Well, we've taken a total of a hundred cases on since the beginning. 65 are free. Collectively, those 65 people have spent 1,388 years falsely combined. We are currently working for 20 -- so we have finished, we have finished 79 cases, 65 have been free. And the other 14 or so or 15 have not. We did not free them. Six of those 15 or so, we determined that our original assessment of innocence, after we had fully vetted the case and began our investigation, we made a mistake. We came to believe they were guilty. We dropped them.
Jim McCloskey (00:53:26):
And you know, several died in prison before we were able to complete our work on their behalf. And then five, although we still believe in their innocence, we had to leave them behind, because we were not able to develop enough new evidence or find a good legal basis to go back to court with. Two were executed; one in Louisiana, one in Virginia. So... but of the 79 cases we've concluded, 65 were freed. That's a little over 80%. The other 21 cases we're still working, Centurion is still working. You know, of the 65 that we have freed, 41 are African-American, 20 are white, and 4 Hispanics, including Chiefy. Of the 21 we're currently working for, 19 are African-American and one is a Native American out of Minneapolis.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:54:27):
Yeah. And that actually takes me straight to -- what has this taught you about the justice system, where race is concerned?
Jim McCloskey (00:54:34):
Well, in, in my view of 40 years of work, in a hundred cases, in addition to thousands of pleas for help all over this country, there is no question in my mind that the racial bias and prejudice on the part of juries, police, prosecutors accounts, or is one important reason, for African-Americans in particular to bear the brunt of being falsely accused and wrongly convicted. You know, you take as an example, several examples, I'd like to point out in that regard.Since 1989, the National Exoneration Research Center, they document all the exonerations that have taken place in America since 1989. 1065 mostly men have been exonerated. In other words, they got convicted of murder, sent away for life or death, and later were exonerated, just like we exonerated Chiefy de Los Santos. 50% of those exonerees are African-American. Same thing with sexual assaults. 360-some men have been exonerated from life sentences for sexual assault. 60% African-American. So people of color bear the brunt of this, because, you know, I believe that there is a strong undercurrent, implicit, explicit, both, of racial that, you know, first of all, these folks have no resources.
Jim McCloskey (00:56:29):
They are poor. They have no way to defend themselves. There's a pre-- when, if you're a person of color sitting in that dock, and you have an all-white jury or a mostly white jury, the presumption of guilt is going to be there. And that's going to be a very difficult invisible barrier to overcome from the outset. As far as death row, 170 men, and a few women, have been exonerated off of death row, and 50% of them are African American. So it goes on and on. You take New York City, the stop-and-frisk policy. For 18 years, it was legal for police officers throughout New York City to stop people on the street and frisk them. They did that to 5 million people over 18 years. Now, 80% of those who were stopped and frisked are brown or black people.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:57:27):
Jim McCloskey (00:57:32):
I mean, you know, so it's, it's there. And, oh, sorry. That's not even to mention all these fatal shootings of innocent black citizens by white police officers all over the country. I mean, my view and I -- I include myself in this -- we, the Caucasian folks like myself... There's still a segregation between African American people and their social environment. I'm talking about regular law abiding people where, you know, regardless of the social economic status, and white people, we don't, we don't intermingle very much. And because of that, and you know, I think we're, we -- whites -- are raised, are programmed. We're raised with these erroneous assumptions and fears and expect-- We categorize people of a different race in a way that's wrong and unfair. We falsely profile them. I don't think there's any question, given what I've just tried to explain, that law enforcement people have within them both explicitly and implicitly, this racial bias that triggers them to come down on the Black population, much more than [inaudible]. There is systemic racism across America. It always has been, you know, for 400 years, and there might be a greater awareness now because of these fatal uncalled-for murders.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:59:21):
And video. And evidence.
Jim McCloskey (00:59:22):
But now if it weren't for the videos, nothing would have happened.
Sushama Austin-Connor (00:59:29):
Earlier, you touched on it a couple of times, I think what is always startling to me, and it was an important part of your book too, is the presumption that white folks, good white folks, and other white folks have that the system's fair, then it's like just fair. And that all is fair. And that you must've done something. You must've done something. I think it's that -- it's changing those hearts and minds that is so difficult. Like, no, the system's actually not fair. Let's, let's start there as the baseline.
Jim McCloskey (01:00:01):
Well, we have two different perceptions of the criminal justice system, based on our own human experience. We, and I'm generalizing, but it's true. We, whites have not been abused generally by law enforcement. They're out there to protect and serve. And we whites have no idea what's going on in communities of color with the interaction and the interfacing between police and the communities of color. We have no idea about that. And you know, another thing is, another thing is, that... In my work, Su, the last 40 years, I bet I've been in a thousand Black homes, every major city in the United States. I don't care where it is. South LA, south Dallas, Harlem... Newark. And I know from my conversations with African-Americans in their homes, that... what goes on, and the heavy hand of the police that they've experienced. And you can even be of a higher socioeconomic status, and... You know, I know of no white family, and I know a lot of white families in my world, not one that I'm aware of have their parents ever sat their kids down and said, if you get stopped by the police, here's how you must conduct yourself. Otherwise, you're going to be in danger right. Now, I was watching a Major League Baseball racial, race seminar by Black baseball players, not too long ago. And one of them pointed out that when white people get stopped by a police officer for a motor vehicle violation versus black people get stopped. We have two different objectives. The white person is going to be very nice and polite to prevent from getting a ticket. The Black person is going to be very nice and polite to save their lives, to save their lives. And that is, I don't have to tell you, but you know, that's a conscious thing that African American families have to contend with, regardless of their station in life. We have no idea. We don't know. We're ignorant about that, talking about whites. So, you know, I've had the good fortune. I'm no expert, I don't claim to be an expert, but I do have more experience in this field and this interaction with, between communities of color and myself than most of my white friends do. And they just don't get it. They don't know. [inaudible]
Sushama Austin-Connor (01:02:52):
They don't get it. Yeah. Yeah. That's an important point. Jim, one final question. We, our audience is gonna want to know what, what can we do? What can we as clergy and faith leaders and people interested in you and your work and in Centurion and in freeing people who deserve to be freed, what can we do for Centurion? And what can we do to learn more about this justice system that is so different for so many of us?
Jim McCloskey (01:03:26):
Well, first of all, I read the Philadelphia Inquirer every day. That's where I'm from, that's my home paper. And if you... It's just, you know, Philadelphia is a war zone. The violence down there and fatal shootings. And I mean, it's just, it's out of control. But what I'm trying to say is, read the newspapers with an open mind, understand what's going on in your local community. One example could be, there have been a number of progressive men and women who have been elected district attorneys. As an example, in Baltimore, in Chicago, in St. Louis, in Boston, in Orlando, there are a number of Black women who have been, Black women have been elected as prosecutors, county prosecutors, and what have they done there? And it is a -- that's a tough job if you're Black and you're a woman. And the police, the white police unions and the white police entrenched, you know, you have your hands full, because they resist you with all their might and abase you, and all of that.
Jim McCloskey (01:04:56):
They're having a lot of problems. I'm thinking particularly of Kim Gardener out in St. Louis. Boy, she's going through hell, dealing with the police unions there. And even Larry Krasner down in Philadelphia, a white male. He having a -- he's a progressive, reform-minded prosecutor, but what's going on there in those offices, and in other offices around the country, they've recognized that this wrongful conviction, this is a phenomena that is far wider, deeper than we ever... Our criminal justice system is flawed, to a far greater extent than we ever imagined. So even district attorneys are setting up what they call conviction integrity units, to review, a separate unit within the office, to review former convictions where an innocent person may have been convicted. I mean, Larry Krasner down in Philadelphia, when he took office three and a half years ago, he set up a conviction integrity unit, and they have freed and exonerated 17 men who have been wrongly convicted of Philadelphia murders.
Jim McCloskey (01:06:09):
And I might add 16 of the 17 are African-American. It happens that way. But what people can do, you know, who am I to tell people how to vote? But, you know, voting is so important. If you have a choice between a progressive-minded candidate for the local district attorney and an entrenched, "tough-on-crime," old school person. Look at that very carefully. If you want justice and you want change, then you got to go with a progressive person. You just have to. Lives are at stake. Lives are at stake. And it's so important who we, the electorate put in authority in the criminal justice system. That's one thing. Now, as far as Centurion, you know, look, when this pandemic is past us, one way that they can -- we -- I'll just flat out say it -- we depend on financial benefactions from the public. If you think that you want to explore the possibility of giving financial support to us, just go on our, you know, just Google Centurion Ministries and find out all about us. Go to our website, and then you make your determination, if you think this is something that deserves your support. As far as volunteers go, I don't think we're -- we're not taking any more volunteers at this time, because of the pandemic. But when that ceases, if you're a local person, local being in the Princeton area, then you might want to, you might want to contact Centurion with the idea of becoming a volunteer. Right now, we have 20 volunteers, from all walks of life, you know, so there are a lot of different ways that you can support not only Centurion, but those reform-minded, people who want to do who want to make change.
Sushama Austin-Connor (01:08:08):
[percussion music begins] Awesome. You're a delight. We salute you. We salute your work and your ministry, Jim, this is just a gift. Centurion is a gift. And I'll say personally that I don't really know a more worthy cause to support in helping people and in saving people's lives. And we're just really -- Princeton Seminary is proud of you. And, you know, I just find the work so compelling. I hope people read the book. I hope people get to know what you're doing and what your amazing staff is doing. And we just salute you and your ministry and your amazing, fascinating life.
Jim McCloskey (01:08:46):
Well, you know, thank you, Su. And I appreciate that very much. There would be no Centurion Ministries were it not for Princeton Theological Seminary.
Dayle Rounds (01:08:56):
You've been listening to The Distillery. Interviews are conducted by me, Dayle Rounds.
Sushama Austin-Connor (01:09:00):
And me, Sushama Austin-Connor.
Shari Oosting (01:09:03):
And I'm Shari Oosting.
Amar Peterman (01:09:06):
I'm Amar Peterman, and I am in charge of production.
Dayle Rounds (01:09:08):
Like what you're hearing? Subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast app. The Distillery is a production of Princeton Theological Seminary's Office of Continuing Education. You can find out more at thedistillery.ptsem.edu. Thanks for listening. [water droplet sound]