[ Spotlight ]
Demanding Justice T he abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” For 40 years, Jim McCloskey (Bucknell 1964) has lived the truth of that statement. Since founding Centurion Ministries, Jim has been presenting demands to the power that is the U.S. criminal justice system on behalf of those he believed to be wrongly convicted. In 64 of those cases, he and Centurion have won the concession they demanded – the exoneration of a man or woman serving a life sentence or awaiting the culmination of a death sentence.
As Jim describes in his new memoir, When Truth Is All You Have, truth alone – in this case the evidence of innocence – is rarely enough to wrest from the justice system the concession of a mistake. Before beginning his work with Centurion, Jim says, “I still believed in the inherent justice of the criminal justice system… I do not believe that now.” Jim took a winding path to find his life’s work. Following graduation from Bucknell in 1964, he served for three years as a U.S. Naval officer, including a year in Vietnam. He spent the next 12 years working as a management consultant, specializing in Japanese business affairs. In 1979, at the age of 37, Jim felt a call to leave the business world and enter the ministry. While pursuing a master’s of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, he served as a student chaplain at Trenton State Prison in New Jersey. During this time, he took up the cause of Jorge de los Santos, who was serving a life sentence for murder. Ultimately, thanks to Jim’s persistence, the conviction was overturned, and Mr. de los Santos was freed in July 1983. Jim had found a new way to live out his faith. Rather than become a church pastor, the path he thought he was on, he would commit his life to freeing innocent people from prison. In 1983 he founded Centurion Ministries, the first organization in the world dedicated to the vindication of the wrongly convicted. Jim retired from active management of Centurion in 2015 but continues as a member of the board of trustees and still manages several cases. Jim’s accounts of his cases over the years read like compelling detective fiction or a police procedural, but in reverse. The trial is over, the accused found
guilty, incarcerated and in some cases awaiting execution. But was justice served? How to find the truth and then compel the justice system to reconsider the case and concede a grievous error? Jim’s story is as important as it is interesting and inspiring, because of the price paid by the innocent and their families and because of the dearth of advocates compared to the need. The 64 men and women who have been freed through Centurion’s work spent over 1,330 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989 over 2,500 people have been exonerated, including 123 who were sentenced to death. From Centurion’s humble start in 1983 with a $10,000 gift from Jim’s parents, innocence advocacy has grown to 50 or so similar organizations today, but there are far more innocent prisoners than there are investigators and advocates like Jim. He estimates that the innocent number in the tens of thousands. What motivates a person to dedicate his life to such battles on behalf of “the least of these” and to keep fighting in the face of daunting odds? Jim says his story is one of faith and hope. That faith has been challenged by the injustice he has seen and the suffering it has caused, but he says, “Despite the ups and downs of my faith, I retain a deep gratitude to God for sustaining me and Centurion Ministries from the very beginning.” He takes further inspiration from the philosophy of the great baseball pitcher Satchel Paige: “Never let the odds keep you from pursuing what you know in your heart you were meant to do.” If you care about justice, you will want to read this book. t THE PHI GAMMA DELTA