I could be wrong but maybe our newbie President could take some lessons from U.S. 1’s January 14 cover article on Centurion Ministries, the Witherspoon Street nonprofit that reopens dusty criminal cases and works to free wrongly convicted inmates. Obama might learn, as some of us who read the article did, that the legal process isn’t always perfect, that eyewitness testimony can be surprisingly unreliable, and that overturning a conviction is roughly like turning around an ocean liner at full throttle — a lot of inertia has to be overcome.
Centurion founder Jim McCloskey’s account of his first visit inside the prison walls in 1980 was an eye-opener. McCloskey had been verbally accosted by one of several inmates he met and later referred to the inmate as a black man. But this particular inmate was white — giving McCloskey instant insight into the potential weakness of eyewitness testimony and leading to the formation of Centurion.
I had a similar revelation the first time I stepped inside a maximum security in prison in 1979. I was visiting Rahway State Prison, writing a People Magazine profile of an inmate named Rick Rowe, a freckle-faced, 38-year-old who had started the Lifers Program at Rahway that led to the Scared Straight program, the subject of a nationally broadcast documentary about the life prisoners at Rahway confronting juvenile offenders with the harsh realities of prison life. The program became wildly popular, but a study done some 10 years later challenged its success.
“I said from the word go that it’s not going to work for every kid,” Rowe told me in that first interview, “but it might help those on the borderline-the kids who are smart enough to cope with what they see.”
In addition to the lifers’ program, Rowe kept busy running a Christmas toy drive, a program that taught inmates hairstyling so that they could find jobs cutting hair upon their release, and a prison employment agency.
What most impressed me about Rowe, however, was his quiet insistence of his own innocence. When I got back to my office after that visit to Rahway I immediately called the PR guy for the state corrections department. What was Rowe in for, anyhow, I wondered. The PR guy promptly described a horrific rape and assault that capped a lifetime of crime, punctuated by Rowe’s belligerent behavior at his trial. So much for my initial impression.
In U.S. 1’s article Jim McCloskey had a much more dramatic eureka moment. His organization had established a track record for saving prisoners, but it had failed to work in time on behalf of convicted murderer Roger Coleman. McCloskey was with the condemned man until the bitter end in 1992, when he was executed. But McCloskey continued his effort to exonerate the man, an effort that finally led to the acid test — a truth-tell-all DNA test in 2000.
That test shocked McCloskey: It proved that he had been had by Coleman’s profession of innocence.
“I felt devastated,” McCloskey told U.S. 1’s Michele Alperin. “You begin to look at yourself and wonder if you have lost your touch. How could you be so wrong when you thought you were so right?”
But, as McCloskey elaborated in a press release issued at the time of the DNA test result: “If there is a means to discover the truth, we must never shrink or shy away from using it in our search. We must never stop the hard effort to touch the factual bottom of any case. The truth can be very elusive, and even illusory. Our search for facts can delude us into thinking that what we have found is gold, only to discover that it is in fact fool’s gold. But once the gold of absolute truth is revealed, we must embrace it, and be thankful that we have finally uncovered it.”
For me that comment went beyond judgments of guilt or innocence. It also cut to the heart of the daily decision-making process. I think, for example, that we made the right choice this week putting an Atlas figure on the cover of this newspaper. But I could be wrong.
So my advice to Obama: As you embark on the new programs and new strategies that we all hope will pull the nation out of its domestic and international quagmires, keep checking the outcomes and evaluating the process. Recognize that the correct approach might be illusory. Be ready to admit mistakes and be willing to cut our collective losses.
As taxpayers and citizens we are used to making mistakes and to encountering mistakes made by others. And we are more than ready to forgive any that you might make.
That’s my opinion. Of course I could be wrong.