Once upon a time, most Americans believed that the criminal justice system didn’t make mistakes—that those found guilty in the courts were indeed guilty. Then came DNA. By the early nineties, DNA evidence was being used to show that, in fact, many prisoners had been wrongly convicted. As more and more inmates were freed, a movement to free the wrongfully convicted emerged. Led by the New York–based Innocence Project, activists and lawyers—later followed by reform-minded prosecutors—worked to show that wrongful convictions are in fact a natural result of the way police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges sometimes do their jobs. Cops lie, prosecutors use faulty forensic science, eyewitnesses make mistakes, innocent suspects make false confessions, defense lawyers do terrible jobs, and judges look the other way. Some of the most high-profile exonerations took place in Texas, such as that of Austin’s Michael Morton, who was freed in 2011 thanks to the Innocence Project.
But long before innocence became a national crusade, a middle-aged divinity student originally from Haverford Township, Pennsylvania, was quietly freeing people on his own. Jim McCloskey, operating out of Princeton, New Jersey, ran the nonprofit Centurion Ministries, and from 1983 until today, his group has helped to free 63 men and women, all of whom had been either condemned to death or sent away for life. Some of McCloskey’s biggest cases took him to Texas, where his work lead to the releases of Clarence Brandley and Kerry Max Cook from death row, as well as those of Joyce Ann Brown, A.B. Butler, and Richard Miles—and helped inspire significant reforms in the state justice system.
McCloskey retired from Centurion in 2015 to work on his autobiography, When Truth Is All You Have (to be published July 14). His story is fascinating. In 1980, he was a 37-year-old Navy vet and successful businessman, but he felt a void in his life and went into the ministry. McCloskey became a student chaplain at Trenton State Prison, where he met an inmate named Jorge de los Santos, who had been convicted of murder on the testimony of two witnesses. De los Santos insisted that he was innocent. McCloskey was like most Americans; he believed the system got it right. But the more he looked into the case, the more he was convinced that de los Santos had been wrongly convicted. McCloskey persuaded a jailhouse informant to recant his testimony and in 1983 de los Santos was freed. McCloskey had found his purpose in life. As he writes in his book, “It was to take the most horrible injustice there is—putting an innocent man in prison—and make it right.” He named his new organization for the Roman soldier who, according to the Bible, said of Christ, “Certainly this man was innocent.”
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Texas Monthly: Centurion is not a religious organization but you are a religious person. How would you characterize yourself?
Jim McCloskey: To me, it’s a religious calling to do this work. I felt called by God to start this up and do this work. However, Centurion is not a religious organization in any way, shape, or form. I hold a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, but I am not an ordained pastor or a minister. I’m just somebody who cares about justice. I can’t imagine being in prison or on death row for the rest of your life. I can’t imagine a worse plight. And so I stumbled into this work as a student chaplain. And one thing led to the other. The next thing you know, I’ve found a real sense of purpose.
TM: You found your calling.
JM: I found my calling. I feel very fortunate. I guess I’m a late bloomer. I started Centurion when I was 41 years old. And I literally thank God for that because if I had not been introduced to this work and committed to it, I would have been lost to the world.
TM: These days there are some fifty innocence organizations, from the Innocence Project to clinics at law schools all over the U.S., working pro bono to free the wrongly convicted and try to help fix a broken system. In many ways, you are the father of the modern innocence movement.
JM: Well, you know, I’ll let other people characterize me that way. It sounds pretentious to even say that. But I will say this: Yes, we were the first ones to do this work. There was nobody else in the U.S. or in the world who was organized and committed to working on behalf of wrongly convicted people for the first twelve years of doing this work. Then in 1992 Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld started up the Innocence Project. And it’s just grown from there.
TM: Did you have much experience with Texas before first coming here in 1987?
JM: I had never been to Texas before and I had certainly never even thought about taking on a death row case. Texas was like a foreign land to me. I was naive. I didn’t know what I was getting to. The only thing I knew was that Clarence Brandley was on death row.
TM: Brandley, who was convicted of killing a high school girl in Conroe, was the first of your non–New Jersey cases. You were able to persuade a lying witness to tell the truth—even after he chased you out of his house with a butcher knife! After 60 Minutes did a story on Brandley, other witnesses came forward, a judge ordered a new trial, and he was freed in 1990. You’ve called him “one of the bravest men I’ve known”—why?
JM: I spoke at his eulogy when he died in 2018. That was Clarence. Look, the clock was ticking. He was going to die in three weeks unless we came up with something. All avenues of investigation and legal strategies had been exhausted. So I’m visiting Clarence and I’m talking with him, and he was so calm and gentlemanly and courteous and showing absolutely no fear whatsoever. I said, “Clarence, who do you think did this?” He said, “Mr. McCloskey, I have no idea. I don’t know who did this because I wasn’t involved.” He was not going to point the finger at anybody else because he didn’t know. He was very honest and he was very brave and very calm. And he was resigned to die. And he was teaching me how to die if that became necessary. And that really inspired me. I was more determined than ever to do whatever I could, working with the team, to free him.
TM: I like the way you set up the chapter on Kerry Max Cook—who was convicted in 1978 of killing Linda Jo Edwards in Tyler. You lay out your theory on who the actual killer was—her boyfriend James Mayfield—and your theory makes ten times more sense than the theory the state prosecuted Cook with. Mayfield died in 2019. Are you still convinced he was the killer?
JM: I have absolutely no doubt in my mind.
TM: Cook’s case, in which he is trying to be exonerated completely, has been before the Court of Criminal Appeals for more than three years now. Do you feel like he should be exonerated in that murder?
TM: In Cook’s chapter, you write, “That’s one of the dirtiest secrets of the corrupt criminal justice system— the tunnel vision of homicide detectives in these wrongful convictions. Once the police home in on a suspect, they don’t want to hear anything about anyone else. It’ll just gum up their case when they get to court. So they investigate their suspect and ignore all the other facts and suspects that are staring them in the face.” That’s one of the common denominators in these kinds of cases, right?
JM: Yes. That is one of the one of the principal causes of wrongful convictions and arrests. You see that in all these Texas cases. It happens quite often.
TM: Let’s talk about Benjamine Spencer—you have a whole chapter on this man who you feel is innocent but is still in prison. In 2008 a judge ordered him a new trial based on actual innocence—a very rare thing—but the CCA overruled him. You’ve been working with Spencer for twenty years and he still calls you most Saturday mornings? What do you say to him?
JM: He calls me almost every Saturday morning and has for years and years and years. We talk about his case. We talk about the coronavirus. We just talk about life in general.
TM: In the book, you make a pretty good case that he should be freed and exonerated.
JM: Absolutely. There’s no question in my mind that Ben Spencer is an innocent man. He’s in his thirty-fourth year now. I don’t know how he does it. Ben is so patient and kind. He’s gentle as a lamb. And when he calls, he’s never “woe is me.” To have a judge declare him to be actually innocent and have to wait three years for the CCA to override that—we thought we were going to walk him out. And then we had to start all over again. And we’re still working on it. When I retired, I kept seven cases to work on, including Ben’s. Five of those seven have been freed or exonerated.
MH: Centurion got its first DNA exoneration in 1991, but most of your work has come from field investigation—reading documents, asking questions of reluctant witnesses and antagonistic prosecutors, knocking on doors. You’re like a private eye.
JM: That’s what we do. First, we get the entire record of the case: the trial transcripts, police reports, legal briefs. We become intimately familiar with the history and the facts of the case. And then once we commit to the case we go out onto the street, knock on doors, look for old witnesses, look for new witnesses. We do the boots on the ground, investigative work.
TM: You end the book with “What’s gone right” in the criminal justice system—mainly DNA, which changed the game for the wrongly convicted—and also the introduction of conviction integrity units in the offices of DAs. Then you segue to “What’s still wrong” and you write about the issues we still have to work on. If you had to pick the single most damaging aspect of the criminal justice system, the thing that has sent more innocent people away than any other, what would that be?
JM: Lying witnesses. Perjury. You see it in all the Texas cases—perjury provoked and triggered by prosecutors and/or police, coercing or enticing witnesses to lie. And juries are prone to believe prosecution witnesses. They have a bias toward them. I did, too, when I started out in this work. Everything else flows or is connected to perjury on the witness stand. I think there are a lot of different human factors that come into this. In a number of cases, the witnesses are getting their first encounter with the criminal justice system, so they come in believing that the police and the prosecutors absolutely know what they’re doing. Witnesses want to please the authorities. And the police and prosecutors are able to manipulate those witnesses into saying what they want them to say—for example, to identify a suspect. Witnesses are malleable. We human beings are a malleable lot, and we can be led.
TM: Texas has led the nation in many reforms, including post-conviction DNA testing, the junk science writ, and a robust forensic science commission.
JM: And don’t forget compensation for the wrongly convicted—Texas is the most generous state in the country.
TM: Right. But what do you think we need to do next?
JM: Here’s what you need to do. Let’s just take Dallas County, which has had more than thirty exonerations. Now, you would think that somebody would say, wait a minute, what’s going on here? Why have there been so many wrongful convictions in this county alone? Canada conducts postmortem hearings with full subpoena power to examine all those who played any part in a wrongful conviction, from the defense lawyers to the prosecutors and police. They get all the files and they have everybody testify to examine what went wrong and to make recommendations how we could prevent this from happening again. Nobody in the United States has ever done that.
TM: Okay, so now you say you’re retired but you’re still working on Ben Spencer’s case and at least one other. So, truthfully, you’re never really going to retire, right?
JM: No. I mean, it’s literally impossible. I can’t get away from it if I wanted to get away from it.
TM: You are a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan. Will the Eagles ever play the Cowboys again?
JM: I certainly hope so. I hope so.