May 15, 2019

Wrongfully Incarcerated for Many Years, They Tell Their Stories at Centurion Event

“I DIDN’T DO IT”: Centurion Founder Jim McCloskey (left) stands with The Savannah Three — from left, Kenneth Gardiner, Dominic Lucci, and Mark Jones — last year when they were finally freed after 26 years in prison on a wrongful conviction. At a family gathering on Saturday, May 11, Centurion celebrated the 63 men and women it has freed from death row or life sentences. (Photo courtesy of Centurion)

By Donald Gilpin

Centurion, a Princeton-based organization working to exonerate innocent individuals in prison, celebrated the 63 men and women it has freed from death row or life sentences at a family gathering at The Westin in Princeton Forrestal Village last Saturday, May 11.

Founded in 1983, Centurion was the first institution in the world dedicated to the vindication of the wrongly convicted. Staff, volunteers, attorneys, families, and friends joined to honor and listen to several exonorees and their lawyers tell their tales of imprisonment, survival, and freedom.

“Buckle up. Here we go,” said Centurion Executive Director Kate Germond, as she welcomed the gathering of 150 and introduced the speakers who would be telling their stories.

Germond described the celebration as “the culmination of Family Gathering weekend, our annual tradition when we bring our exonerees together for a few days of healing, support, and, of course, celebration. Our entire family of exonerees is renewed and bolstered by time spent with the only other people who understand what they’ve been through — each other.”

Centurion founder and board member Jim McCloskey, a Princeton Seminary graduate who became inspired by one of the wrongly convicted inmates he counseled as a student during his seminary fieldwork almost 40 years ago, stood before the group alongside Lamonte McIntyre, who spent 23 years in prison on a 1994 murder charge in Kansas City, Kansas, before his conviction was finally vacated two years ago.

McCloskey told the story of how he, along with Centurion lawyer-volunteer Jock McFarlane, worked for some eight years in the face of a frustrating legal system and “a notoriously corrupt police officer” in “corrupt Wyandotte County” to prove McIntyre’s innocence.

Now married with two children, McIntyre has part ownership in the barber college he attended and is on the board of Miracle of Innocence, a Kansas-based organization that works to exonerate wrongly-convicted people.

The sagas continued, as Centurion Legal Director Paul Casteleiro told about David Bryant, who spent 44 years in prison for a murder and sexual assault he did not commit. Through “digging and investigation” and perseverance, Casteleiro, along with Centurion Case Investigator Jim Cousins, was able to help Bryant win his freedom almost a year ago.

Then there was the story of Jules Letemps of Orlando, Florida, who understood little of the court proceedings because he did not speak English. He spent 27 years in prison after being misidentified as the perpetrator of a sexual assault before being freed in 2016.

McCloskey, taking the podium again, stood with the Savannah Three — Kenneth Gardiner, Mark Jones, and Dominic Lucci — who were also misidentified when convicted of a 1992 nighttime drive-by shooting in Savannah, Georgia.

In a case which should never have gone to trial, they served 26 years in prison before McCloskey and Centurion finally won their freedom in 2017, with all charges dismissed six months later, after a legal battle of almost nine years.

Overzealous prosecutors, careless defense attorneys, mistaken identity, false confessions, coercive interrogations, and blatant racism — the tales continued.

“A travesty of justice, egregious ineffectiveness of counsel,” Criterion Investigator Alan Maimon described in the case of Michael Shannon, who is finally free after nine years in prison in New Orleans.

Ralph Lee Jr. of Paterson, New Jersey, recently exonerated after 24 years, thanked Centurion “for encouraging me to keep fighting. I chose not to give up. Life is living and living is freedom. Thank you all.”

The cases, many of them without the benefits of DNA evidence, take years of research, re-interviewing witnesses, working with defense lawyers, and gathering new evidence.

Centurion receives more than 1,500 requests for help each year and is currently developing more than 150 cases. All Centurion services are provided free of charge. The average cost to exonerate an innocent prisoner and provide necessary follow-up support, typically a process taking more than ten years, is about $350,000.

“We work until we see the innocent people walk out of jail and, when possible, reunited with their families,” states the program introduction for Saturday’s event. “We work towards actual justice. Centurion is almost always the last hope — the only hope  — for the innocent in prison.”