Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 16
 
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
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Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton


FREEING THE INNOCENT: “I think I can safely say that I am the only Princeton resident to live here because it is midway between the Rahway and Trenton State Prisons!” James McCloskey is founder and director of Centurion Ministries, which works to free unjustly convicted and imprisoned individuals. In the background are framed newspaper stories of his cases.

James McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries, Works to Free Innocent Prisoners

Imagine being falsely accused. Then imagine being imprisoned for many years or even for your entire life, based on that false testimony.

An unthinkable nightmare for most of us, but one all too familiar to James McCloskey, whose life’s work has been dedicated to establishing the innocence of and ultimately freeing unjustly incarcerated individuals.

As founder and executive director of Centurion Ministries, a non-profit organization, he has worked to free prisoners across the country and in Canada. His dedication, focus, and commitment have been unswerving, and his organization has successfully freed 44 innocent prisoners, most of whom had been incarcerated for 20 or more years. He shows no signs of letting up. He looks forward to devoting his energy and effort to exonerating more people.

“The work that Centurion Ministries has done is remarkable,” says the Reverend David Davis, Pastor of Princeton’s Nassau Presbyterian Church. “When you consider the number of wrongfully imprisoned people they have worked to free and you add up the collective number of years in prison, it simply takes your breath away.”

As a boy growing up in Havertown, Pa. near Philadelphia, Jim McCloskey never could have foreseen such a future for himself. The oldest son of James and Mary McCloskey, he had a happy childhood, filled with good times and good friends. Younger brother Richard and sister Lois completed the family.

He had a fun-loving, adventurous, and optimistic spirit, and was always convinced things would work out.

Great Attitude

The only dark spot occurred in 1947, when his mother contracted polio. “She was 30 and became paralyzed from the waist down,” recalls Mr. McCloskey. “In those days, people thought polio was contagious, and in the beginning, only one neighbor came to see her. Others were afraid. Mom had a great attitude though. She didn’t let it get her down, or stop her, and she never complained. Mom loved people, and said, ‘I want people to feel comfortable with me.’”

Jim liked school, especially American history, when, in the fourth grade, he discovered a book on the life of Andrew Jackson.

A gentleman from his earliest years, he fondly remembers his first grade teacher. “I had a big crush on her — Mrs. Livesey — and after class, I would go up and kiss her hand!

“I was never very good in math or science,” he continues, “but I liked English literature and the arts. And I loved sports. In junior high and high school, I was on the baseball and soccer teams, and I loved the Phillies.

“We took family vacations, and went up to the Polo Grounds in New York to see the Giants play the Phillies, and we also went to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and on trips to Florida.”

A friendly boy, Jim was popular with his peers, and always had friends around. “Mostly, I remember my childhood filled with friends. I have been very fortunate to have good friends. My parents welcomed kids to our house, and they all liked to come. My mom made everyone feel so welcome. We’d play touch football in the front yard and darts in the basement.

Old Friends

“I’m a bachelor,” adds Mr. McCloskey, “and I collect old friends. I still have six to eight high school friends I’m in touch with and many life-long friends from Bucknell, where I went to college. In fact, I had 40 Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers come to Princeton to celebrate our 40th Bucknell reunion. We had all lived in the fraternity house at the same time.”

Mr. McCloskey believes that he was also lucky growing up because of his father’s business circumstances. “Our family was affluent compared to some others. My father was with the family business. the McCloskey Construction firm which had built Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia and RFK Stadium in Washington. My great-uncle, Matthew Mc-Closkey was President Kennedy’s Ambassador to Ireland.”

After graduation from Haverford High School in 1960, Jim got his first job, working as an attendant at a gas station. “I was totally incompetent,” he laughs. “The only reason I was kept on was because the owner was a family friend.”

In any case, he had higher aspirations. At Bucknell, although he particularly liked American history and literature, he majored in economics. “I always knew I’d end up as a businessman,” he reports. “At that time, my dream was to be a successful international businessman, especially in Japan — it seemed so different, so far away.”

Stacking Hay

Adventure was a part of his DNA. As he says, “I always had an adventurous streak. The summer after freshman year, a friend and I got a ride to California to see the sights. We each had $100 that our parents had given us. We were able to stay at the Phi Gam house at USC, and in Los Angeles, I got a job as a movie doorman for one of the big movie houses. I wore a uniform and took tickets, and then got to see the show. It was great.

“Later, I hitchhiked to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, and got a job washing dishes in a restaurant, and afterward, another at a ranch, stacking hay in Laramie. I lived in the bunkhouse with itinerant ranchhands. I only weighed 135 pounds, and the work was very hard. I wanted to quit, but the ranch owner dressed me down, said I was a weak, spoiled Easterner, and shamed me into staying. I gained 15 pounds of muscle, and it turned out to be a good experience.”

When it was time to go, once again, fate was kind, and Jim hitched a ride with two young men who were driving straight through to Philadelphia.

After graduation in 1964, Jim joined the Navy. “I wanted to explore the world, and I went to Officers Candidate School (OCS), and was commissioned an ensign. I got my wish and was sent to Japan as assistant officer to the communications station near Tokyo.

“I loved the Navy,” he continues. “Not for a career, but it was a great experience. It was my entree into the world, and I loved Japan and the Japanese.”

After a year and a half in Japan, he moved on, however. “In 1965, Vietnam was heating up, and I wanted to be where the action was. So, I was sent to San Diego and trained for combat and to be an advisor to the Vietnamese junk fleet which patrolled the rivers looking for Vietcong. There were six boats, and we also went on search and destroy missions.

Jim was awarded the Bronze Star with the combat V for Valor for his courage under fire.

Lost Cause

In 1967, he was discharged, and returned to Philadelphia. “When I came back from Vietnam, I thought it was a lost cause and a waste of human life,” he says. “It also had made me skeptical of authority.”

He decided to head back to Japan, this time to fulfill his goal of becoming an international businessman. To achieve this, he entered the American Graduate School for International Management in Glendale, Arizona, earning a post graduate degree in international business in 1968.

From 1969 to 1973, he lived in Tokyo, and worked for a management-consulting firm jointly owned by the then First National City Bank of New York and the Fuji Bank of Japan. Primarily, he conducted market research and joint venture negotiations on behalf of American clients interested in establishing their business in Japan and other Asian markets.

“I enjoyed the work,” points out Mr. McCloskey. “I went to Korea, and lived there two months, and also traveled to Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. After four years, though, I started to become disillusioned, and I saw that as a foreigner in Japan, you could go only so far.’

In addition, he found himself a bit homesick, and he returned to Philadelphia in 1974, where he worked for another consulting firm, The Hay Group. Building on his Japanese expertise, Mr. McCloskey developed and led Hay’s business with Japanese companies in the U.S., and established Hay’s management-consulting business in Tokyo.

By now, he had spent a number of years enjoying the good life — making money and having the accoutrements that go with it: big car, handsome house, travel, dinners at fine restaurants and the like. He lived in Paoli, Pa., a desirable community 25 miles from Philadelphia.

Spiritual Dimension

But, explains Mr. McCloskey, “I was beginning to lose my passion for it. I wasn’t satisfied with my life-style. I felt I wasn’t living my life fully. I wasn’t centered. And, I felt I was missing a spiritual dimension.

“To go back a bit,” he continues, “from the fourth grade through high school, I went with my family to an evangelical Presbyterian Church. Every Sunday, there was Sunday School, then church, and the Youth Group at night. By the time I was in college, I had had enough. I said to my father, ‘I’m never going to church again in my life!’ And I didn’t darken a church door until I came back from Japan.”

He decided to try out the Paoli Presbyterian Church, whose pastor of 30 years was Richard Streeter. “I saw that the pastor of a church was there to help others, and over the next five years, my Christian faith began to take root. It was a time when my faith started to build, and my passion for business was diminishing.

“What the pastor was doing was touching the hearts and souls of people. The good times I was having and the money I was making just weren’t good enough. It had become unimportant to me. It wasn’t the way to make my life authentic and real.”

So he gave it all up, and embarked on a new path. “I consulted with no one except Dick Streeter about my hope to become a minister,” he recalls. “Dick said, ‘God works in mysterious ways’ and to think about it.”

He thought about it, and in 1979, at the age of 37, he entered Princeton Theological Seminary with the intent of becoming an ordained minister. At the Seminary, students are required to do field work, and during his second year, Jim became student chaplain at Trenton State Prison.

“I met an inmate, Jorge de los Santos, and he really got to me,” recalls Mr. McCloskey. “He kept insisting he was innocent of the murder he was convicted of, and he was so impassioned that I began to believe him. He said to me: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ And I thought maybe I could try to help him.”

Truly Remarkable

Princeton resident, the Reverend Chase Hunt was also at the Seminary at that time, and he remembers his first meeting with Jim McCloskey. “On that occasion, we spoke of the student ministry in which he was engaged at the prison. He told me of an inmate he believed had been wrongfully imprisoned there for well over a decade. Imagine being imprisoned for a crime you did not commit! I was impressed by the passion with which Jim held that feeling and by his deep concern for that man. It was out of that concern that what is now Centurion Ministries took root.

“What Jim McCloskey has done through the intervening years to gain freedom for the wrongfully imprisoned is truly remarkable. He is one of my heroes. I admire him greatly.”

Jim decided to take a year off and try to help this man. And it was not going to be easy. “I had to hire a lawyer, investigate the case, and raise money to do this. And I was broke! At the time, I was living rent-free in a house on Library Place, whose owner had taken a liking to Seminary students, and generously let me continue to stay.

“I really believed this was my life calling, and then, two things happened. My parents had come into some money, and gave each of us $10,000. And I had a dream that I was in Vietnam and saw a boat full of people sink into the water, and I thought they had drowned. Then, suddenly, a helicopter came along, and Green Beret Special Forces parachuted down and saved the people. I felt this was a sign that I should continue this work.”

Somehow, he was able to form a defense committee of noted New Jersey jurists, attorneys, and clergy, and he secured the services of a noted defense lawyer. He conducted his own investigation, and raised and spent $25,000 to meet the costs of trying to free Mr. de los Santos. In 1983, Mr. de los Santos was indeed freed and exonerated by a federal district judge in Newark.

Mr. McCloskey had returned to the seminary in 1981. He earned a Master of Divinity degree, but decided to forego the church pastorate in favor of establishing Centurion Ministries, which he named after the Roman Centurion from the New Testament who proclaimed while standing at the foot of the cross: “Surely, this man is innocent.”

Factually Innocent

Now, Mr. McCloskey wanted to devote the rest of his life to freeing the imprisoned innocent. Earlier, he had come to believe in the innocence of two other men, Rene Santana and Damasco Vega, and he was able to gain their freedom in the 1980s.

He officially founded Centurion Ministries in 1983, and although this occurred out of a spiritual calling, it is not a religious organization, he explains. “We are investigators and advocates for the wrongfully convicted, and our work focuses on reinvestigating cases with the goal of vindicating those factually innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.

“It is irrelevant to Centurion Ministries what religion, if any, that an inmate or beneficiary practices. This also applies to our staff and all those who work with us (i.e. volunteers, attorneys, investigators, etc.) Our sole concern and focus is on an inmate’s factual innocence. Thus, Centurion Ministries is a purely secular organization even though I have felt spiritually called to do this work.”

In 1985, still basically operating Centurion Ministries on his own, he took on the case of Nate Walker, a convicted rapist, whom he believed to be innocent, and this would change the course of Centurion Ministries. He was able to gain Mr. Walker’s freedom in late 1986.

“Nate’s story put us on the map,” explains Mr. McCloskey. “It became a national story, with a lot of press coverage, print and TV. Also, Kate Germond — now director — came to us as a volunteer.

“Nate and I were on the Today Show, and families and inmates from all over the country started writing to us for help with their cases. In addition, foundations began calling, asking for proposals for grants. It’s like the movie, Field of Dreams: ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

Death Row

Next, he undertook the first Centurion Ministries case outside of New Jersey, going to Texas in an effort to prove the innocence of Clarence Brandley, convicted of rape and murder, who was on death row and scheduled for execution in three months.

“Clarence’s brother had asked us to help, and this was my first experience with a death row case. We read through the transcripts of the trial, police reports, post conviction hearings, etc. Then, we formulated an investigative plan, including talking to people who were involved, finding witnesses, going and knocking on their doors. No one has to talk to us. It’s moral suasion. Some people have a conscience; others don’t. It’s all an effort to find new evidence to overturn the conviction, and ultimately, Clarence was freed in 1990.”

The amount of work involved in such an undertaking is staggering, points out Centurion Ministries director, Kate Germond. “Our job is to free the wrongly convicted. Our battles are mighty. This is hard, hard work; no one has any idea of what we endure as we fight these battles to free these innocent folks. Jim worked alone for five years before I came along. I don’t know how he did it. Especially with his level of concentration. It is fierce.”

As Ms. Germond points out, fighting these battles is intense: encountering uncooperative district attorneys and lawyers, witnesses unwilling to admit they lied … these situations are seen again and again. It is an unending struggle, yet the positive outcomes are so welcome, they outweigh the strain of the uphill ordeals.

Helping Many

Says Ms. Germond: “As I listen to people talk about their jobs, there is so often disappointment and problems and unhappiness. I don’t have any of that, and that is a luxury I value. Plus the added benefit of knowing I am helping someone in a very direct way and indirectly helping many.

“We have also been able to form partnerships with some incredible lawyers from around the country, and we have a board that has stuck by us and made it possible for us to do this amazing work.”

Board member and Pennington resident Jay Regan is strongly supportive of Centurion Ministries. “I think the work they do is phenomenal. I can’t imagine anything worse than being in prison for something you didn’t do. Most of these people don’t have the money to hire lawyers or other people to help them, so they end up with public defenders who know nothing about the case.

“I am proud to be part of this organization. And Jim McCloskey is an amazing person. He gave up a profitable career in business to do this. He is totally dedicated and a great guy — a regular guy and fun to be around. And a huge sports fan.”

Mr. McCloskey cannot help but be proud of what Centurion Ministries has accomplished. “It’s been almost 30 years now, and we have a great track record. We are 100 percent underwritten by donations from across the country, and most of them are from individuals. We now have five full-time staff members, and 15 volunteers, at any given time, who help in many areas, including responding to petitions. We get 1200 new requests every year.”

Mr. McCloskey is also invited to speak at numerous clubs and organizations, and he must limit appearances due to his heavy case load, requiring travel to many locations for his investigative field work. He did speak recently at a meeting of Princeton’s Old Guard, when he told an engrossed audience about his work and what it meant to him.

His speaking style is energetic, compelling and enthusiastically engaging. After 45 minutes, the audience still wanted to hear more.

Toughest Cases

He looks forward to an upcoming fund-raiser April 13 at the Nassau Presbyterian Church. Fifteen of the inmates Centurion Ministries has freed will be in attendance, and novelist John Grisham will be the guest speaker. Mr. Grisham became interested in Centurion Ministries while researching his only non-fiction book, The Innocent Man, and he is an enthusiastic supporter of the organization.

“The work Centurion Ministries does is incredible and incredibly difficult,” points out Mr. Grisham. “It takes a tremendous amount of perseverance and determination to go back to the scene of the crime many, many years later and reconstruct what happened. They take the toughest of the toughest cases. Not many people could do this work.

“I have great admiration for Jim and Centurion Ministries. There are not many people in the world who have compassion for prisoners. It’s easy to forget about them, and it can break your heart. Jim is one of the rare people who cares about them.”

As a small organization, Centurion Ministries is not able to take all the cases presented to it, and there are strict guidelines for accepting requests. “After we study the case, examine the written history, the last step is to meet the person,” explains Mr. McCloskey. “We want to have an objective mastery of the case and not be influenced by personality.

“Then, it’s hours and hours of interviews with the inmate whom we are devoting ourselves to over the next five years. Will this be someone who will be able to become a functioning member of society if he or she is exonerated?

“Inmates are angry and bitter,” he continues. “Some are able to overcome this in prison. Suffering can give you wisdom and inner power. If they are able to realize that their anger is destroying them, they can invest themselves in something else and let go of the anger. They have to let it go to move on. Then, they can begin to transform themselves.

Patience and Perseverance

“Our focus is on non-DNA cases, although we do take those too. We want to go out and investigate. We are the only organization in the U.S. that works to re-investigate cases from top to bottom across the country. It takes unlimited patience and perseverance. I learned patience and taking the long view from the Japanese.”

It is all worthwhile, he adds, when an innocent person is exonerated and walks out of prison. What it means for the family of that person is also important.

“No one talks about the pain of the family and the trauma and suffering they go through,” points out Mr. McCloskey. “For us to be able to come into the situation and say to them: ‘We will take on your burden’ is a tremendous relief for them. We are in touch with them throughout the case, and it is very important to communicate with them continually.”

The enormously time-consuming nature of his work leaves little time for Mr. McCloskey to relax, but when he does, he is happy to be in Princeton. “I love the ambiance of Princeton. I can leave my office at noon, walk around, and meet a variety of people. On my way home, I can walk up to Olives and get a delicious dinner to take home. I couldn’t exist without Olives. What a great place!”

Nassau Presbyterian Church is an important part of his life, he adds, and he has many friends there.

Down-to-Earth

Sports-lover that he is, he enjoys basketball and football games at Princeton University, and also watching the Phillies play. “Also, the last three years I’ve had a personal trainer, and three times a week, we take a mile walk, box for five rounds, and then lift weights.”

“Jim is such a down-to-earth guy,” points out the Reverend David Davis. “He’s a great friend to me and my family. He’s such a regular guy that you forget you’re having dinner with one of the few people in life you meet whose calling has actually changed the world.”

Mr. McCloskey is pleased to receive such accolades, and also appreciates having received an honorary degree of Doctor of Human Letters from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He continues to retain his down-to-earth style, however, and his enjoyment of people. “I love to go out to dinner and spend time with friends, but I basically live a quiet life. I like to read, especially biography and American history, including the Civil War. As a young man, I greatly admired Abraham Lincoln, and he is still my hero.”

Like his hero, Mr. McCloskey is aware of the shortcomings of human beings but also of their ability to lift themselves beyond selfish and narrow interests. “As with anything to do with human beings, the legal system has flaws,” he notes. “We just continue to do our best to find justice for those wrongly convicted.

“To be successful in this — or whatever you do — it is very important to follow your inner voice, even if you can’t explain it to others, or whether they approve or disapprove. If you think it is right for you in your heart and soul, do it.

“In life, you can’t have everything. I miss the personal happiness of having a wife, a life partner. But I feel I am the luckiest person in the world to have stumbled on my life’s calling. I believe I have lived the life I was meant to live. A door was opened to me, and I found my destiny.”

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