July 15, 2020

McCloskey, Grisham Will Discuss Books, Criminal Justice in July 16 Conversation

By Donald Gilpin

Jim McCloskey (Photo by Diane Bladecki)

Two of America’s most powerful criminal justice reform advocates, Centurion Ministries founder Jim McCloskey and best-selling author John Grisham, will be conversing at 7:30 p.m. Thursday evening, July 16 in a virtual event sponsored by Princeton Public Library in partnership with Doubleday and Labyrinth Books.

McCloskey conjectured that the topics they discuss will include his just-published memoir When Truth Is All You Have;  Grisham’s 2019 best-selling novel The Guardians, inspired by McCloskey about a minister-turned-prisoner-advocate; “as well as our views of America’s criminal justice system, especially as it relates to the wrongly convicted and its treatment of the African American communities.”

McCloskey added, “Since both of us are huge baseball fans — he has been a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan as I am with the Philadelphia Phillies— I expect that subject might be touched upon too. Who knows what other topics might come up!”

Princeton-based Centurion, named for the Roman soldier in the Bible who said of the crucified Jesus, “Certainly, this man was innocent,” was the first organization in the United States committed to freeing the wrongly imprisoned.  Since its founding almost 40 years ago, Centurion has freed 63 prisoners while they were serving life in prison or death sentences for crimes they did not commit.

Grisham joined McCloskey in 2010 for a Centurion Ministries’ fundraiser at the Nassau Presbyterian Church, where McCloskey is a member.  Grisham returned to Princeton in March 2019, visiting McCloskey and the offices of Centurion as he was conducting research for The Guardians.  At that point he volunteered to write the foreword to When Truth Is All You Have.  In that foreword Grisham emphasizes how it is “virtually impossible” to exonerate a convicted defendant.

“It takes years, some luck, and at least $200,000 squeezed from private donors,” he writes. “And it also takes an advocate who is tireless, fearless, and dedicated to justice. A man like Jim McCloskey.” He describes McCloskey as “the dean of all innocence advocates – the Exonerator.”

About 40 years ago, McCloskey, a U.S. Navy veteran, was a moderately successful businessman, living in the Philadelphia area and working in international consulting for two management consulting firms. He became disenchanted with the work and, at age 37, left the business world and enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary, eventually earning a Masters of Divinity degree. One of his first assignments was an internship at Trenton State Prison, and his first case was Jorge de los Santos, who was serving a life sentence, convicted of a 1975 murder in Newark.  De los Santos convinced McCloskey that he was innocent.

As his memoir describes, McCloskey threw himself into the prisoner’s case. It took three and a half years to get de los Santos exonerated and freed, and along the way McCloskey met three other prisoners whose innocence he believed in. He had found his calling. By 1983, Centurion Ministries, with a growing team of forensic experts, lawyers, and volunteers, was born.

As the publisher Doubleday describes McCloskey’s book, the full title of which is When Truth Is All You Have: A Memoir of Faith, Justice and Freedom for the Wrongly Convicted, “This is a candid and compassionate chronicle of faith and doubt, triumphant success and shattering failure, and an unflagging dedication to justice, telling not just McCloskey’s own story but also those of the unjustly imprisoned for whom he has advocated.”

Grisham’s foreword emphasizes that the stories of wrongful convictions “are so good because they are so tragic. Jim could write a fascinating book about each of his cases, all 63 of them now, and the pages would turn. However, limited by time and space he has chosen his best. This book is far too thin and left me wanting more of Jim’s ‘war stories.’”

In an email last week McCloskey, who retired as executive director of Centurion in 2015 to write his memoir but continues to work on cases, commented on his work in the current context of the Black Lives Matter movement and the flawed U.S. criminal justice system.

Of the innocent 63 prisoners Centurion has freed while they were serving life in prison or death sentences, 39 were Black, and of the 21 current cases, 19 of the inmates are Black. “It just so happens that in the most obvious cases of innocence that we have vetted, the defendants are mostly Black,” McCloskey said. 

He noted racial disparities and discrimination throughout American society, and emphasized that injustice in the criminal justice system, “which is where Centurion ministries and I have worked for the last 40 years,” is one of the primary concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement.

McCloskey went on to point out the failure of the criminal justice system to provide a fair trial to African Americans.  “As an example, why is it that nationwide, of the 1,065 men and women exonerated of their homicide convictions since 1989, 50 percent were Black; and of the 335 inmates exonerated from their sexual assault convictions since then, 60 percent were Black, even though they constitute only 13 percent of the U.S. population?” he wrote.

He cited problematic arrests based on scant evidence and biased views of Black suspects by police who have a need and desire to clear cases, along with prosecutors who will do whatever it takes to gain a conviction in these cases. “Of course it happens to whites as well, but people of color bear the brunt of wrongful convictions. The scales of justice are automatically out of balance because the defendants are indigent and have no resources to defend themselves against the heavy weight of the police and prosecution.”

McCloskey went on to criticize the lack of experience and incompetence of court-appointed trial attorneys, who “are paid a pittance and have inadequate funds to retain necessary investigators and forensic experts to rebut what is often false or erroneous testimony by the prosecution witnesses.”  He continued, “I also believe that if you are a person of color sitting in the dock, because of racial bias among those who come to judge you, consciously or not, the presumption of guilt is an invisible force difficult to overcome. As a result of these and many other factors, truth is left behind as the train chugs along on its way to the state prison.”

McCloskey cited 17 public cases since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 where innocent citizens have been killed by police.  “A perfectly reasonable question is this,” McCloskey said. “Why is it that in these tragic events every police officer was white and every victim was Black?  How many more of these fatal encounters between white police officers and Black or Bown victims are yet to be revealed?  To me, this is clearly indicative of widespread racism, both implicit and explicit, that exists in police departments across the U.S.  Certainly it is much more than just ‘a few bad apples.’”

Registration for the July 16, 7:30 p.m. Princeton Public Library conversation on Zoom between McCloskey and Grisham is at Eventbrite.com.