One Man's Court of Last Resort

James McCloskey works to set free those whom he feels have been falsely imprisoned. INTERVIEW

JAMES McCLOSKEY carries no weapon, wears no badge, and has no law degree. Instead the Princeton minister relies on the power of persuasion as he searches for the truth that will set his clients free. His clients are inmates, convicted of serious crimes like murder and rape, sentenced to life behind bars, or death by electrocution or lethal injection. All have one thing in common: They claim they are innocent.

And since 1983, this one-time conservative, fast-track businessman has helped spring nine convicts from prison, including five last July.

Among McCloskey's most recent triumphs is the case of Joyce Ann Brown of Dallas. Ms. Brown had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a May 1980 robbery that led to the murder of a Dallas fur store owner.

Her conviction was overturned November 1 after an investigation by McCloskey identified another woman with a startling resemblance to Brown as the possible murderer and raised questions about the credibility of a jailhouse witness whose testimony helped convict Brown.

``McCloskey's a God-sent person,'' said Brown in a recent phone interview. ``He comes from the heart. Once he becomes convinced of your innocence, he doesn't give up until you're free.''

3,000 requests for help

From the basement of a small office building in Princeton, McCloskey and his two staff operate Centurion Ministries, an organization dedicated to researching convicts' claims of innocence.

In the past four years, he has received more than 3,000 requests for assistance. Operating on a budget of $178,000 from foundation grants and private donations, McCloskey and his assistants barely have enough time to read all the letters, let alone investigate the writers' claims.

He's working on six cases across the country, although an office blackboard lists 12 more. McCloskey looks for certain patterns in his efforts to determine if an inmate has been framed.

``There are certain things that jump out at you,'' he says. McCloskey looks for discrepancies in statements from witnesses in what they first told police and their testimony at trial. Another red flag, he says, are ``jailhouse confessions,'' in which an inmate in prison gets a reduced sentence for testifying against a cellmate who they say confessed to a crime.

Having no subpoena power, McCloskey relies on what he says is his ability to talk to people gently and put them at ease.

``No one is obliged to talk to me,'' he concedes. But McCloskey can also be quite persistent: In some cases, he has pursued witnesses for years.

Although critics question his motives, James McCloskey's background doesn't hint at his current calling. A little more than a decade ago he was a Philadelphia management consultant specializing in United States-Japanese trade.

``I was a conservative Republican living in suburban Philadelphia,'' he says. ``I was on the fast track. I had a high-paying job, the nice house in the suburbs, and the Lincoln-Continental.''

But McCloskey says something was missing.

``I felt a spiritual emptiness in my life,'' he says. ``I wanted to touch the heart and souls of people, but the business world didn't allow you to do that.''

McCloskey started attending church again after a 14-year absence. His going to a local Prebyterian congregation persuaded him to give up his business career and enter the seminary.

He entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1979 for his masters in divinity degree. His life started changing, but McCloskey says the decisive transformation came the following year.

He become a student prison chaplain at the Trenton, N.J., state prison as part of his training. There he met George (Chiefie) De Los Santos. The then-convict was serving a life sentence for the 1975 murder of a Newark, N.J., used-car salesman.

McCloskey became friends with De Los Santos but didn't believe his claims of innocence.

But after De Los Santos persisted, McCloskey read De Los Santos's trial transcript and became convinced of his innocence.

McCloskey played detective, using up a lot of shoe leather in what became a three-year effort to get De Los Santos out of jail.

McCloskey graduated from Princeton Divinity School in June 1983. One month later, a federal district court judge ordered De Los Santos freed.

Former US District Court Judge Frederick B. Lacey said testimony from a jailhouse witness that convicted De Los Santos ``reeked of perjury.''

McCloskey says De Los Santos's release convinced him of what has become his mission. He was never ordained; instead he founded Centurion Ministries with the last $10,000 he had left from his days as a businessman.

Walker case spotlight

It was the case of Nat Walker that brought McCloskey into the national limelight. McCloskey uncovered medical evidence proving that Mr. Walker, who was serving a life sentence, was not guilty of the 1975 rape of an Elizabeth, N.J., woman.

After Walker's 1986 release, both People and Newsweek magazines profiled McCloskey, and the letters from other inmates behind bars started pouring in.

McCloskey's power of persuasion helped win the release this January of Conroe, Texas, high-school janitor Clarence Brandley, who had been convicted of the rape and murder of a 16-year-old female student.

``Jim was able to break the case wide open,'' says Brandley attorney Paul Nugent. ``He came down to Conroe for six weeks, worked 15 hours a day trying to find witnesses who would clear Clarence. He just kept at it, visiting witnesses repeatedly until he found out the truth.''

When McCloskey arrived in Conroe in 1987, Brandley was six days away from being executed for the Aug. 23, 1980, rape and murder. Three white janitors had implicated their boss, black head janitor Brandley at the trial.

But the execution was stayed after one of the three white janitors told McCloskey that his white colleagues had actually dragged the girl away. A Texas state judge, Perry Pickett, said the new evidence suggested the two white janitors were responsible.

Two months ago, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas's highest criminal court, reversed Brandley's conviction.

Montgomery County District Peter Speers, who prosecuted Brandley, sees McCloskey much differently than attorney Nugent.

``I don't know why he would come down to Conroe from New Jersey,'' he says. ``He must be doing it for the money or the media attention. It's hard for me to believe he's doing it out of the goodness of his heart.'' Spears insists that Brandley is still guilty and says physical evidence proved that. He says he plans an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

These days McCloskey is busy working on several cases.

On Feb. 20th, he got some good news on on one of them: A Philadelphia judge announced he was throwing out the 1978 conviction of Matt Connors, a Philadelphia man sentenced to life in prison in the fatal stabbing of an 11-year-old girl. He was released in March, the eighth prisoner freed through McCloskey's work.

McCloskey said that evidence that would have cleared Connors was never revealed at his trial.

``Sometimes this work can get very frustrating,'' McCloskey says. ``It seems next to impossible to get to the truth. It feels like hitting a brick wall. But then, finally, someone in authority admits a mistake was made. ... And all my anger at the injustices that have been done becomes worth it. It's the greatest feeling in the world. Nothing beats it for pure fulfillment and joy.''

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