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Difference Maker

He helps innocent prisoners win their freedom

Through his Centurion Ministries, Jim McCloskey works to overturn unjust sentences.

By Marilyn JonesCorrespondent / November 30, 2009

The advocacy work of Jim McCloskey has helped overturn 44 wrongful convictions to date. A seminary graduate, he says that only one group is more persistent than he and his staff: mothers of the accused.

Ann Hermes/Special to The Christian Science Monitor


Princeton, N.J.

Jim McCloskey has spent the past 30 years in and out of prisons. His offices at Centurion Ministries in Princeton, N.J., show why: The pictures and newspaper articles covering the walls tell one story after another of Mr. McCloskey's tireless work to free innocent men and women from life sentences or death row.

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But McCloskey says it took a couple of detours until he finally found, as he puts it, "a life of authenticity – what I think of as a calling."

After graduating from Bucknell University and a three-year stint in the US Navy (where he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor), McCloskey began to climb the corporate ladder.

But after 13 years, even though he'd achieved success, he felt unfulfilled. So, at the age of 37, he surprised his friends and family by entering Princeton Theological Seminary to become an ordained Presbyterian minister.

In his second year at seminary, McCloskey served as a student chaplain at Trenton (N.J.) State Prison. Ministering to dozens of inmates, he heard many stories of woe and regret. But one inmate in particular, Jorge de los Santos, convicted of murder and serving a life sentence, made a deep impression.

"His cries of innocence haunted me," McCloskey says. "And he challenged me to do something." After spending some long nights of soul-searching, McCloskey made another life-changing decision. Convinced of Mr. de los Santos's sincerity, he withdrew from seminary for a full year to devote himself to proving de los Santos's innocence.

Living on his savings, McCloskey dug in. And his work paid off. Through persistence, he uncovered duplicity in the testimony of the star witness – another inmate incarcerated with de los Santos at the local county jail, ironically similarly named Delli Santi (of the saints).

"Neither of them were saints," McCloskey says with a laugh. But "while Jorge was a drug addict, he wasn't a murderer."

In his research on the case, McCloskey discovered a deal between the witness and the district attorney's office that the jury had never heard about. McCloskey's diligence led to Delli Santi's admission that he had falsely accused Jorge to avoid prison time.

At the time of the trial, the witness, Delli Santi, walked out of jail immediately after testifying falsely. And de los Santos went to prison. Even the judge in the appeals court concurred that this case had serious flaws. He remarked that the jailhouse testimony "reeked of perjury and the prosecutor knew it."

De los Santos's conviction was overturned – and an innocent man walked out of prison after seven years of wrongful incarceration. His cries had, indeed, been heard.