“It is my belief that most Americans vastly underestimate the frequency with which innocent people get wrongly convicted of serious crimes,” explains Jim McCloskey, the founder of Centurion Ministries in Princeton. It is one of the chief reasons why he decided to write “When Truth Is All You Have,” which will be published by Doubleday with a foreword by John Grisham on July 14.
On Thursday, July 16, Grisham will interview McCloskey via Zoom in a free event hosted in partnership with Doubleday, Princeton Public Library, and Labyrinth Books.
As the book’s subtitle proclaims, it is “A Memoir of Faith, Justice, and Freedom for the Wrongly Convicted.” It is a rousing good story with its share, as with any decades-long tale, of ups and downs, death and deliverance.
In a sense, McCloskey’s struggle to free innocent people from years of demeaning, often brutal imprisonment began 41 years ago. It was, he readily admits, not something he had ever thought about. He was 37 years old, with what he felt had been a varied and rather exciting life. He had grown up in Philadelphia’s bucolic Main Line, imbibed the fraternity scene at Bucknell University, spent a night in a Mexican jail cell, fought in Vietnam, and racked up a financially rewarding business career in Japan and the United States.
And then in 1979 he left that history behind and went to Princeton. To the Princeton Theological Seminary, in fact, where he hoped to find greater meaning to his outwardly successful life. While he most assuredly did, it was only indirectly through his Seminary studies. Rather, his transformative moment arose during his second year, when he visited the maximum security unit at what was then the Trenton State Prison (now the New Jersey State Prison).
As a volunteer Seminarian student, he met Jorge de los Santos, an inmate who repeatedly declared not only his innocence but also that prosecutors had knowingly and intentionally framed him. That declaration ultimately led not only to McCloskey founding the nation’s first innocence project in 1983 but also to John Grisham’s best selling 2019 novel “The Guardians.”
It is, as indicated above, a decades-long story. It should also be noted that when McCloskey becomes really interested in a project, he becomes passionate about it. And his passion is such that others, such as John Grisham, frequently join him in the quest to free innocent people from jail. But not right away.
It was a lonely start, one that involved taking a year’s leave of absence from the Seminary to search for information that would prove Santos’ innocence. He became transfixed reading trial transcripts and was dogged in tracking down and interviewing witnesses. He was, as he writes, “living in a film noir life. I was Humphrey Bogart, tracking down the Maltese Falcon; I was Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade all wrapped in one.”
He was moved not only by his belief in Santos’ innocence but also by how Santos challenged him, “If there is a God, He’s gotta work through you.” McCloskey’s book, as emphasized in the subtitle, is also about faith and how his faith has buttressed him through many a dark and devastating moment.
He recognized from the beginning, however, that more than faith and investigative research were needed to free wrongly convicted people. Lawyers were also a key component. Enter Paul Casteleiro, a sole practitioner with a law office in Hoboken, who became, McCloskey writes, “my mentor and my guru.” (Casteleiro’s passion for justice ultimately led him to close his office and join Centurion as its legal director in 2014.)
Though McCloskey returned to complete his Seminary studies at the end of his year’s leave, he continued to document, as did Casteleiro, Santos’ innocence. On July 26, 1983, two years and ten months after McCloskey walked into the Trenton prison, Santos was freed.
That night, as he sat alone in his hot, rent-free attic apartment in Princeton, McCloskey looked at a pile of papers that had accumulated on his desk and, he recalls, “I realized God is here with me. And has more work for me to do.” Thus, Centurion Ministries was born.
The papers contained pleas from other prisoners. And McCloskey responded, slowly building up a resume of exonerations. That record did not, however, show much income. At one point, McCloskey considered applying for a waiter’s job at the old Annex restaurant on Nassau Street.
One might say the New York Times came to the rescue. In early November, 1986, the paper reported on an exoneration obtained by McCloskey. That led to widespread publicity, an appearance on “The Today Show,” and, even more important for the future of Centurion Ministries, a phone call from Kate Germond.
“I felt, quite literally, like she was heaven-sent,” McCloskey writes. Germond had just moved to New York City from California with her husband and wanted to employ her bookkeeping skills in something she felt was useful. Within a few weeks she had waded through the piles of papers in McCloskey’s apartment and organized everything — case files, information pouring in, donations, and pleas for help.
There was one case that demanded immediate attention. Clarence Brandley was on death row in Texas and scheduled to be executed in March, just months away. That time constraint made it among the most nerve-wracking of cases. Germond joined McCloskey in the successful search for proof of innocence, one that ultimately brought forth a recanting witness. The Centurion findings were enough to postpone the execution “just six days before Brandley was scheduled to die,”’ McCloskey said in a recent interview. “Can you imagine the pressure we were under?”
Though Brandley was ultimately exonerated, Jimmy Wingo was not. Centurion had been also working on his case, but to no avail. McCloskey stayed with Wingo on the afternoon of the execution in June, 1987. “It was an incredibly difficult visit for me,” he writes.
National publicity and the increasing number of exonerations were enough for McCloskey’s name to be known in legal circles. It wasn’t until 2005, however, that John Grisham became aware of his work. Grisham was visiting Mark Barrett, an Oklahoma attorney whom Grisham featured in his only nonfiction book, “The Innocent Man.” Barrett’s office contained boxes marked Centurion Ministries. Grisham asked Barrett about them and was told, “These guys only take the toughest cases.”
Grisham was impressed. So much so that when he finally was introduced to McCloskey three years later he said “I know all about you.” Grisham’s knowledge was such that he offered to speak at a Centurion benefit in April, 2010. “He is such a gentleman, “McCloskey says. “He went out of his way to accommodate all our wishes.” Grisham not only paid all his expenses for his appearance at the Nassau Presbyterian Church but also, McCloskey likes to tell, sent in a very handsome check afterwards.
McCloskey readily admits that donors and volunteers are crucial to Centurion’s mission, which has freed 63 wrongfully convicted people since its founding. “The Nassau Presbyterian Church,” he emphasizes, “has been my family and my home, providing material as well as emotional support.” Among the numerous donors, Bill and Judy Scheide and Jay and Amy Regan have been particularly generous.
Centurion estimates that it takes eight to ten years to free an innocent person, and the average cost is in the ballpark of $350,000. Given that the average per prisoner cost in the New Jersey prison system is $61,603, Centurion is often saving taxpayers money when an innocent person is freed.
More than 1,200 new requests for help come annually. Currently staff and volunteers are working on 150 cases of wrongful conviction. “The volunteers read case reports, answer phones, set up meetings, help with the filing, and more,” McCloskey reports. “Most are retired, and they bring a variety of backgrounds — corporate executives, police officers, nurses, attorneys, urban planners, medical doctors, teachers, and financial planners. John Farmer, former attorney general of New Jersey, is also among those who have pitched in.”
He could not resist adding, “We even had a go-go dancer at one point.” It turns out she was better on the dance floor than in going through office papers and did not stay very long.
And McCloskey does like to emphasize, as he writes in his book, “It doesn’t matter if you believe in the existence of God or you don’t. Because we work together for a common cause.”
McCloskey retired from active management in 2015 but continued engaging in case management while starting work on his book. Thus, he was available when he answered his office phone a year ago last March. A phone call he will never forget.
“Hi, Jim, this is John Grisham.”
“Well, hello John.”
“How about if I come up and visit you?”
No surprise: McCloskey thought that was a great idea. Grisham flew up to Princeton and spent two hours at Centurion’s headquarters conducting research for his 2019 book, “The Guardians.” In an Author’s Note at the end of that book, he writes that McCloskey and his work was one of its inspirations. He urges readers to take a look at Centurion’s website “and if you have a few spare bucks, send them a check. More money equals more innocent people exonerated.”
Grisham also admits that he knew very little about innocence work 15 years ago. This was generally the case, McCloskey says, and “I must say that I have been encouraged by recent audience response to my presentations. In the 1980s and 1990s I was often met with a palpable degree of skepticism, if not cynicism, when I offered my belief that far more people are wrongly convicted in the United States than any of us care to believe.
“However, there has been an evolving, perceptible change in this attitude to one more accepting of the notion that innocent people do get convicted in America.” While innocence projects now exist throughout the country, and hundreds of prisoners have been exonerated, Centurion continues to stand out for taking on the toughest cases.
In writing “When Truth Is All You Have,” McCloskey also sought to show the public how and why such convictions occur. And finally, “It is my hope that it will inspire and touch the hearts of people into believing that all things are possible, and mountains can be moved through pluck and luck if the truth is on their side.”
Jim McCloskey and John Grisham, Labyrinth Books. Thursday, July 16, 7 p.m. Register. Free. Pre-order signed books by email to email@example.com. 609-497-1600 or www.labyrinthbooks.com.
Centurion Ministries, 1000 Herrontown Road, Princeton 08540. Corey Waldron, executive director. www.centurion.org.