If the walls at Centurion Ministries could talk — and they can — they would tell the stories of the 53 wrongfully convicted prisoners the group has set free in its 30 years of existence. The pictures tell the stories plainly enough. If you walk through the ministry’s new and expanded offices on Herrontown Road you can see those dozens of tales of injustice in the hundreds of photos that line the walls.
They are stories of maddening racism, betrayal, and the indifference of a dysfunctional justice system. They are also stories of hope, heroism, and perseverance.
The office of founder and executive director, the Rev. Jim McCloskey, hints at a wry sense of humor. He has a gun and a badge, emblems of the Texas Rangers who wrongfully arrested one of Centurion’s clients. Behind his chair is a painting of a nude woman, with a bullet hole in the canvas, evidence from another case.
McCloskey, the son of a Philadelphia-area construction company owner, took a circuitous route to his present calling. After studying at Bucknell, serving in the Navy in Japan, and then working as a consultant for companies doing business in the far east, McCloskey had a change of purpose and enrolled in the Princeton Theological Seminary — at the age of 37.
In 1980, as a student chaplain from the seminary visiting the maximum security tier of Trenton State Prison, McCloskey ran into a prisoner who would cause yet another shift in direction. Rather than just pray for him, the prisoner convinced McCloskey to look into the circumstances of his arrest and conviction. McCloskey did just that and after three years of investigation and appeals the prisoner’s conviction was reversed and Centurion Ministries was born.
When the group moved, both McCloskey and second-in-command Kate Germond got new offices that are spacious, but barely big enough to hold all the mementos they have accumulated over the years from various cases. Germond’s, like every other room and hallway in the building, is covered in photos, newspaper clippings, and mementos. Her desk is piled high with case work and research. There’s a magazine on the floor: P.I. Magazine’s special issue on blood splatter analysis.
Germond’s office is especially full of photos. She joined the group in 1987 and is the person who masterminded the group’s move last summer from a cramped office on Witherspoon Street to its new headquarters on the third floor of 1000 Herrontown Road. She is the group’s executive director as well as one of its most relentless case investigators.
Germond also came to Centurion with a mission to right wrongs. In her former life, out in California, she was an activist who had grown up in Connecticut, the daughter of university professors. She worked as a bookkeeper to pay the bills and devoted most of her time to various causes. She started a soup kitchen and volunteered at rape crisis lines. In 1986 she read an article about Centurion Ministries and decided to come help. She and her husband, who had already moved east because of his job, moved to the Princeton area.
“What I feel is pressure,” Germond says. “Every day I don’t work, people stay in prison. There’s never a vacation without a transcript or a document of some kind. This is all I care about.”
David Bryant figures prominently in Germond’s office decor, and he appears in other places around Centurion ministries. His picture hangs in the break room alongside a few dozen other photos of men eating their first meals, and it documents some of Bryant’s first moments as a free man after three decades in prison. The first thing he did was go to Dunkin Donuts. That’s what most of them do when they are freed — they eat some real food. Another man chose pancakes, another just wanted some apple juice. They are usually amazed that they get to hold a metal spoon, a metal fork, and strangest of all, a metal knife.
Bryant spent 38 years in a New York prison for a murder he didn’t commit. In April, 2013, a judge freed him in a surprise ruling after Centurion proved he was innocent. More photos reveal more moments of the story. There’s Bryant in court. There he is on the streets outside the courthouse, bewildered after suddenly being set free after so many years.
There he is tearfully hugging Germond, the investigator whose work proved he never raped and killed an eight-year-old girl back in 1975. There he is beaming a gap-toothed grin, wearing a sweatshirt that says “I didn’t do it.”
For all her hard work and dedication, Germond knows Centurion will be hard pressed to make a dent in the overall problem. Germond believes there are as many as 10,000 wrongfully convicted people languishing in prison.
The photos on development director Nick O’Connell’s walls are a bit more personal. The biggest one shows a four-year-old boy and his father posing behind him; the setting is in a California prison. The boy is O’Connell, and when that photo was taken, his father felt sure his arrest was a big mistake and he would be released any day.
When O’Connell talks about how his dad ended up in prison, he still sounds a bit shocked. From what little O’Connell remembers of his father as a free man, they had a good relationship. Frank would put Nick on the handlebars of a beach cruiser and ride down the dunes. They would go for walks by a stream, which, in Frank’s lavish description, became a mighty river lined by bear caves and hidden gold.
Nick’s mother and Frank were never married and had just broken up on the day the police came for him. Nick, just four in 1984 and living in Covina, didn’t really understand what was going on during his first jail visit, but he sensed something was wrong. “I was uncomfortable,” he says. “My dad was on the other side of this glass. I was sitting here watching him and my mom on the phone, and I couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation. I just knew something was wrong. They were clearly distressed.”
They were distressed because, as it turned out, Frank was being railroaded. It took years of investigation on Centurion’s part to unravel what happened during the trial that sent Frank to prison. It started with the murder of 27-year-old maintenance man Jay French, shot dead in a Pasadena parking garage.
A neighbor told police someone had shot French twice, then run back to a waiting getaway car driven by a blonde woman. It turned out French was in the midst of a bitter divorce and custody battle with his wife, Jeannie Lyon. When interviewed, she told police to investigate O’Connell, who lived in San Dimas — about 25 miles away from the crime scene.
O’Connell’s only connection to Lyon was that the two had dated for six weeks half a year before French’s murder. The two had no ongoing relationship. Yet this thin thread was enough of a connection for the police to focus on O’Connell as their prime suspect, under the theory that he had killed Jay on his girlfriend’s behalf. (Oddly, they never arrested Lyon.)
Los Angeles County detectives showed a photo lineup to a witness, Daniel Druecker, who reluctantly picked out a photo of O’Connell as the closest match to the gunman he had seen. In their report, however, the detectives said Druecker was certain it was him.
O’Connell went on trial, having chosen to have a judge, rather than a jury, decide his fate. Three of O’Donnell’s roommates testified they saw him at home watching a Lakers game at the time of the shooting. Druecker testified he “couldn’t be positive” it was O’Connell he had seen on that day. There was no physical evidence tying O’Connell to the murder. Nevertheless, the judge found O’Connell guilty and sentenced him to 25 years to life in prison.
Nick moved from place to place with his mother for the next few years, eventually settling in Colorado. In those formative years, he only got to see his father two or three times a year. Meanwhile, Frank wrote letters to anyone he could think of, begging for legal help. For his part, Nick always believed in his father’s innocence. As the years went on, Frank started to tell Nick about the case. When Nick was 15, he read as much about the case as he could get his hands on — court transcripts, evidence, police reports, and the like.
“I read everything,” Nick remembers. “And just like most Americans, I think there must have been something for the cops to latch on to to make them think it was him. I actually thought I was going to find something in these reports that kind of made sense. But there was nothing there.”
Nick grew up in the same media universe as the rest of America, watching TV shows where the cops and courts were the good guys, and always got the case right, or at least had good intentions. And he had to reconcile that with what he was seeing happen to his father. “I was very confused and disillusioned,” he said. “I was gauging this against what you see on TV and common sense.”
Despite the prison walls and hundreds of miles separating them, the father and son kept a close relationship. Nick’s mother was supportive. She also believed Frank’s story, having seen him miles away, moments after the murder took place. Frank would send Nick birthday cards full of artwork drawn by other prisoners. He never missed a birthday or Christmas.
When Nick turned 18, he was finally able to visit his father without permission from anyone. He went to the University of Colorado to study marketing and arranged to stay at a girlfriend’s grandmother’s house a few hours from the California prison where Frank was being kept. Nick soon racked up $3,000 in credit card debt by driving to see his dad every chance he got, making the four-hour round trip as many as four times a week.
“I would just hang out with him all day and then cruise home,” he says. “It was our time to solidify our relationship.” Together they would talk about sports, and talk about how they could get Frank exonerated. But no one they wrote to on the outside seemed to be listening.
There is another wall in the Centurion office. There are no pictures there, just names in white letters, on a black background . They call it “The Board.” The board holds the names of prisoners whose cases have been accepted by Centurion, usually about 20 to 25 at a time.
The organization does not put people on the board lightly. The first step in getting on the board is to write a letter explaining their position. Usually, Centurion responds by sending the prisoner a letter back explaining their criteria and a questionnaire probing them for details about the case. (This part can be a difficult hurdle, considering the large number of convicts who are illiterate.)
That’s when Centurion’s team of 22 volunteer investigators begin looking into the case, poring over records, trying to see if it’s a good fit, and making sure the prisoner is actually innocent. Each volunteer has about 10 cases at any given time. There is a long list of criteria. They only take murder or rape cases, and only take child abuse cases if there is physical evidence. They generally only take prisoners who seem to be of good moral character, that is, they weren’t convicted of other violent crimes before their wrongful conviction.
Centurion learned this lesson the hard way in its early years. The prisoner who had convinced McCloskey to look into his case back in 1980 and who was released in 1983 was Jorge De Los Santos, who had been wrongfully convicted of killing a used car salesman in 1975. And though he hadn’t killed the salesman, he was a career criminal. “He was not a violent criminal, just a loser and a hapless guy,” Germond says. “He was a heroin junkie. He got out and he died young. A lot of our guys died young.”
Centurion works hard to avoid repeats of that incident. Much of Centurion’s effort now is geared toward helping exonerees adapt to the outside world. The group also works hard to ensure that its investigators’ efforts are focused on truly worthy cases. Each case generates filing cabinets full of material before they are even accepted. (The need to store mountains of paperwork is one reason for the move to a bigger office, Germond said.) Centurion has to be choosy. Only one or two names go onto the board every year, and each case costs about $100,000 to $500,000 to investigate and try.
But once a name is on “The Board,” Centurion is tenacious. The ministry won’t let go until its client is freed. The goal of everyone who writes to Centurion is to get onto that list.
In 1998 Frank O’Connell’s name was added to “The Board.” Centurion’s re-investigation began immediately.
“We take on every case as if the crime happened yesterday,” Germond says. “We are an investigative agency.” Unlike some other nonprofit groups that work to free innocent prisoners, Centurion doesn’t just take DNA cases. It often takes cases, like O’Connell’s, where eyewitness testimony is key. Centurion staffers and volunteers re-interview witnesses, often showing up at people’s doorsteps unannounced, in hopes of getting them to tell the truth about cases.
And that is exactly what they did with Druecker. The turning point in the case came in 2008 when Druecker, the eyewitness, told Centurion the detectives had lied to him and, in their official reports, had misrepresented what he said, making it sound as though he was confident in identifying O’Connell when in truth he was not. At a new hearing, Druecker angrily denounced the detectives and recanted his previous testimony.
They also discovered there had been previous attempts on Jay French’s life. Someone had tried to run him off the road while he was riding his motorcycle. One of Lyon’s ex-husbands even told police Jeannie had hired a hitman to kill French.
Through all this, Nick couldn’t understand why the system continued to press its ever-weakening case. He found the demeanor of the detectives particularly disturbing. “They sit there and pro forma deny the truth with such cold indifference,” he says. “It’s so enraging. For them to sit there and admit to having manipulated the reports . . . it was so heart wrenching. I was so upset. Why not just admit the mistake and move forward?”
In 2012 a judge ruled that the prosecution had withheld evidence that would have helped O’Connell’s case and ordered his release. In another move that enraged Nick, the prosecution continued to insist it would re-try the case instead of just letting Frank go. They waited 55 days of a 60-day deadline before relenting.
The day Frank walked out of the courthouse in April, 2012, was captured on film. That picture of father and son re-uniting, with the door still swinging closed in the background, is also on Nick’s wall.
In many ways, Nick’s life had been on hold until that moment. He had gotten a business degree from the University of Colorado and worked various jobs. For a while, he was a professional poker player. For a few years, he managed his stepfather’s cabinet business. But he resisted building a permanent career or settling down to start a family while he was still battling for his father’s release from prison.
Nick says his father’s release was like “an out of body experience.”
“It was like a thousand pounds of weight had been lifted from my shoulders,” he says. “I felt freed along with him.”
Father and son spent a year in Colorado living together and letting Frank get used to the outside world. But Nick still needed to figure out what to do with his life now that it wasn’t on hold anymore.
He wrote once more to Centurion Ministries, this time asking for a job. Last summer he came on board as the organization’s new development director and, as the youngest staff member, the tech support by default. Today he and his father live together in a modest apartment in Princeton. Frank commutes to New York, where he manages facilities for a chain of gourmet sandwich restaurants.
As development director, Nick organizes events, raises funds, and solicits donations. He also supports exonerees, helping them get the basic things they need to re-acclimate to society and sometimes taking care of things like scheduling medical appointments. He is currently working to get housing and insurance for Bryant.
Nick O’Connell no longer holds the naive view of the justice system he had learned from movies and television shows, noting that more than 1,000 prisoners have been exonerated after being wrongly convicted. “I’ve come to believe 1,300 exonerations is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says.
Centurion Ministries, 1000 Herrontown Road, Second Floor, Suite 8, Princeton 08540; 609-921-0334; fax, 609-921-6919. James McCloskey, director. www.centurionministries.org