The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taking on the hardest cases — without DNA — and setting the innocent free

Jim McCloskey, head of Centurion Ministries, speaks about a Virginia case in 2006. McCloskey writes of his work: “I believed this was destiny, that this was why God put me on earth.” (Photo by Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post)

In early 1979, Jim McCloskey was in his mid-30s, safely home from Vietnam and settling into a successful career as a consultant. Yet his life felt emotionally empty, so he turned to romance, dividing his time between a not-yet-divorced woman and a Times Square prostitute named Brandy whom he genuinely adored. Worried that his personal life was “reaching rock bottom,” he returned to his Presbyterian church and began studying the Bible. But — Augustine’s prayer comes to mind: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet” — McCloskey ventured into Times Square again and, Brandy being unavailable, picked up another woman, only to awaken later to find his wallet gone. “That was the moment I got up, looked in the mirror, and finally said to myself, what the hell way is this to live your life?”

From this salty beginning, the modern innocence movement was born.

Nearly a decade before the Innocence Project freed a single prisoner, and five years before Errol Morris produced “The Thin Blue Line,” McCloskey exonerated his first inmate and launched the nation’s first organization devoted to reinvestigating wrongful convictions. In the 37 years since he founded Centurion Ministries, McCloskey has won the exonerations of 63 men and women — two on death row within days of execution, others imprisoned for decades, adding up to 1,330 years spent paying for crimes they didn’t commit. The reason you may not have heard of McCloskey or Centurion Ministries, as you probably have Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and the Innocence Project, is that Centurion takes on the cases with no DNA, the hardest ones that require years of knocking on doors and poring over documents without biological evidence to score an easy home run. McCloskey is Paul Drake in a world of CSI, a gumshoe investigator without a lab.

When Truth Is All You Have,” a memoir of McCloskey’s life and work, is a riveting and infuriating examination of criminal prosecutions, revealing how easy it is to convict the wrong person and how nearly impossible it is to undo the error. It upends our naive and complacent view of prosecutions — or at least White views, since minorities have long had no such illusions — and demonstrates, case by case, what “a cruel, mindless, mean machine the justice system can be.” It is also a story of faith, in which McCloskey’s belief in the legal system, and in God, is put on trial and often found wanting.

In the fall of 1980, McCloskey was beginning his second year at Princeton Theological Seminary when he began serving as student chaplain at Trenton State Prison. It housed the most dangerous criminals in New Jersey, including Jorge de los Santos, an admitted heroin addict who had been convicted of murder. The inmate insisted that he was framed for the crime and finally persuaded McCloskey to read the trial transcript during his Thanksgiving holiday. When McCloskey returned after the break, he told de los Santos that he believed he might be innocent. “What are you going to do about it?” de los Santos asked. “Are you just going to go back to your nice little safe seminary and pray for me? . . . I need someone to free me from this hell on earth. Whether you like it or not, you are that man.”

McCloskey put seminary on hold and spent the next year reinvestigating. He discovered that the state’s case relied on a drug addict and a jailhouse informant, and that the informant had lied on the stand with the knowledge of the prosecutor. McCloskey found a lawyer to bring the case to trial, and in July 1983, Jorge de los Santos walked out of prison, exonerated.

By this point McCloskey had earned his master’s of divinity, and he had to choose between the pulpit and the prisoners. He chose the prisoners. He was floored and outraged at the corruption he found in the criminal justice system. But he also felt alive, called to a divine adventure. “I was living a film noir life,” he recalls. “I was Humphrey Bogart, tracking down the Maltese Falcon; I was Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade all wrapped up in one.” It wasn’t all glamour, as he pored over musty documents with a glass of bourbon in one hand and a yellow highlighter in another, but he had found his purpose. With a $10,000 gift from his parents, he launched his organization from his bedroom in Princeton. He called it Centurion Ministries, reminiscent of the Roman centurion in the Book of Luke who looks up at Jesus hanging on the cross and says, “Surely, this one was innocent.”

For the first time in his life, McCloskey knew his purpose: to free innocent people in prison. “I believed this was destiny, that this was why God put me on earth. That everything that came before, all the ups and downs in my life, was in preparation for this work.”

And he was good at it. The unlikeliest people talked to him: jailhouse informants, perjured or frightened witnesses and their families, friends of the actual perpetrators, detectives with doubts, immigration officials. “This friendly, paunchy guy with a sense of humor and a smile on his face walks up with his little clerical collar on, and people just naturally let their guard down,” he writes with some amazement. He listened without judgment, and these conversations became confessionals as he helped people “release the guilt of hiding a lie year after year after year.”

Early on, McCloskey attracted the attention of the New York Times and “60 Minutes” when his investigation exonerated Nate Walker, who was serving a life sentence for allegedly raping a White woman. Within days of the “60 Minutes” episode, hundreds of letters poured through McCloskey’s mail slot from convicted rapists and murderers, forcing him (and later his small band of staff and volunteers) to decide who deserves a second chance and who does not. It was a Godlike role, deciding life and death. The responsibility weighed on McCloskey, and it reveals one of the most disturbing aspects of the innocence movement: the sheer randomness of it. How many innocent people are serving time but can’t attract the attention of overwhelmed investigators like McCloskey and his staff? What if no DNA was found at the crime scene, putting their cases largely off limits to the Innocence Project? For that matter, how many cases pique the interest of local or national news media, pressuring the courts to reconsider the verdict? There are far more innocent prisoners than investigators, and McCloskey believes tens of thousands of them languish in prison.

The details of each story in the memoir differ, but the themes are the same. Jailhouse informants who have incentive to lie for the prosecution often play starring roles at trial. Witnesses are intimidated into giving false testimony. Innocent people confess after hours of questioning. Forensic evidence other than DNA — ballistics, bite marks, hair analysis — is often about as accurate as flipping a coin. Prosecutors hide evidence and put lying witnesses on the stand. Police develop tunnel vision, become obsessed with one suspect and ignore exculpatory evidence. “Once some poor innocent soul is singled out, and law enforcement is convinced of his guilt, the train has left the station,” McCloskey writes. “There is no turning back. Truth has been left behind.” By the end of his book, he has laid down story after story, layer after layer, until one comes to the settled conclusion that the foundation of our criminal justice system is deeply flawed.

McCloskey describes his failures, including the possibility that a man he supported, Roger Coleman, was in fact guilty of rape and murder. Some cases haunt him, because he believes he proved their innocence but the legal system was unforgiving. For example, in 1987, Benjamine Spencer was convicted of robbing and killing an affluent White man in Dallas, based on the testimony of three people who claimed they saw him in the victim’s car and a jailhouse informant who testified that Spencer confessed to him. McCloskey reinvestigated and brought the evidence to a judge, who found that all the witnesses were lying and that Spencer deserved a new trial. Three years passed before the appellate court in Texas denied him a new trial. The reason: Spencer’s team did not present new DNA evidence.

I wrote about the case for the Atlantic; in the course of my reporting, I found a new, second alibi witness and tracked down two of the four original witnesses, who recanted their testimony on tape. (One was dead, and one grew hysterical and claimed to not remember.) When I asked the appellate judge who wrote the opinion why he denied Spencer a new trial, he said his hands were tied. “I hope we reached the right opinion,” he ventured, “and that Mr. Spencer has hopefully been rehabilitated.”

Courts like finality, and even strong evidence of innocence usually won’t win a prisoner a new trial, much less exonerate him. In fact, federal and Supreme Court rulings bar a prisoner from appealing his conviction to a federal court based solely on new evidence of innocence.

Some of these cases triggered an existential crisis for McCloskey. “Does God really exist?” he once asked me. “And if he does, what’s the purpose, what’s the redeeming value of all this unjust suffering?” He had no answer and mused, half joking, that that would be the first question he asked God upon arriving in heaven. “It’s going to be an interesting conversation.”

In the span of McCloskey’s career, and in no small part because of his work, Americans have radically reassessed the criminal justice system. They no longer blindly trust it, and with good reason. Since the first DNA exoneration in 1989, DNA evidence alone has vindicated 375 people. The innocence bar has blossomed, with Innocence Projects at law schools across the country. Even some prosecutors are reconsidering past convictions: Five dozen have opened conviction integrity units to take a second look. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 2,500 people have been exonerated since 1989, including 123 who were on death row. But think about that: One hundred twenty-three people would have died had not some crusading investigator at an organization like Centurion or the Innocence Project taken notice; it defies reason to argue that no innocent person has ever been executed.

The book is full of drama and hope — hope, honestly, I do not fully share. While some progressive prosecutors have been elected recently, the fundamental flaws that define our system remain: racism, tunnel vision, a rush to prosecute the easiest suspect, coverups of mistakes. Does anyone think that the death of George Floyd would have resulted in the police officers’ arrest had not a video of one officer kneeling on his neck gone viral?

Meanwhile, the era of easy exonerations is closing. Early on, you could identify old cases, pre-1990, when the state did not yet realize the power of DNA and simply ask for the evidence to be tested. But now most of those cases have been litigated or are moot, the innocent prisoner having served his time or died. Moreover, at the majority of crime scenes, usable DNA is not collected. Even in cases of rape or murder, assailants have become savvy about leaving their biological evidence, and violent crimes, like shootings, don’t often involve close contact. Proving a wrongful conviction in the future will require the kind of old-school, painstaking, gutsy work of knocking on doors, poring over documents and persuading people who have no interest in doing so to admit their mistakes. In other words, we need many more Jim McCloskeys and his counterparts at Centurion, and a return to the past.

Now 78, McCloskey retired five years ago, although Centurion continues. He is still chipping away at two unresolved cases, including the case of Ben Spencer, who has been in prison 33 years, since he was 22 years old. McCloskey writes that his faith is “battered” and “changed, irrevocably,” but he still believes that God called him to this work. As to the justice system, he is less sanguine.

“Sometimes, the truth won’t set you free,” McCloskey concludes.

Then again, sometimes it will.

When Truth Is All You Have

A Memoir of Faith, Justice, and Freedom for the Wrongly Convicted

By Jim McCloskey with Philip Lerman

300 pp. $26.95