How and Why It Was Created
Centurion Ministries, Inc. began in 1980 when Jim McCloskey, a 37 year old Princeton Theological Seminary student met inmate Jorge De Los Santos at Trenton State Prison in New Jersey. As part of his seminary field education work, McCloskey spent two afternoons a week at the prison as a student chaplain assigned to Mr. De Los Santos’ cell block.
No two men could have come from worlds as far apart as those of McCloskey and De Los Santos. McCloskey hailed from the Main Line, a suburb of Philadelphia, PA. He was fresh from a career which encompassed three years as a naval officer in Japan and South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, and 12 years as a management consultant in Tokyo and for the Philadelphia based Hay Group. Deciding his life needed a whole new direction, Jim sold his suburban Philadelphia home and his Lincoln Towncar, and enrolled in the Masters of Divinity degree program at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.
De Los Santos was raised in the harshest of Newark, New Jersey’s public housing projects, and had become a heroine addict. In 1975 he was issued a life sentence after being convicted for the fatal shooting of the proprietor of a Newark used car dealership during the course of an attempted robbery.
Moved and provoked by Jorge’s insistent claims of innocence, Jim took a one year leave of absence from his studies in order to investigate the veracity of De Los Santos’ conviction; and then, if he could somehow confirm Jorge’s innocence, help free him.
With no experience in the criminal justice system, McCloskey obtained the services of Hoboken, New Jersey defense attorney, Paul Casteleiro. (Casteleiro had been recommended to McCloskey by Morty Stavis. This case was the first of many on which CM and Casteleiro would collaborate.) Together Casteleiro and McCloskey discovered that the star witness for the prosecution had concocted a false jailhouse confession story and that the prosecutor knew that this witness had lied at trial. Characterizing this witness’s trial testimony as "reeking of perjury,” the Federal District Judge freed Mr. De Los Santos in July 1983.
By this time McCloskey had graduated from the Seminary and had become convinced of the innocence of Rene Santana and Nate Walker, two New Jersey inmates also serving life sentences.
In the summer of 1983 McCloskey decided to devote his life to freeing the convicted innocent. He saw this work as his life calling. He established a non-profit corporation and named it Centurion Ministries, Inc. (CM).
When McCloskey chose the name of Centurion Ministries he had in mind the Roman Centurion stationed at the foot of the cross who looked up at the crucified Christ and exclaimed “Surely, this one is innocent” (Luke 23: 47 RSV).
Although Jim McCloskey founded CM out of a personal spiritual calling, CM is not a religious organization. It is of no interest to CM if anyone associated with CM has a particular faith or any such inclination at all.
Continued New Jersey Successes
Working with NJ attorneyDavid Ruhnke, McCloskey freed Rene Santana in early 1986 and while working again with attorney Paul Casteleiro, freed Nate Walker in late 1986.
Nate Walker’s exoneration was a national sensation that garnered quite a bit of nationwide publicity. Blood typing of biological material obtained from an eleven year old rape kit proved Mr. Walker’s innocence. As a result, letters poured into McCloskey’s small rented room in Princeton from inmates and their families all across the country proclaiming their innocence and asking for help.
1987 ~ Kate Germond
Inspired by news accounts of McCloskey’s successes, Kate Germond, who had just moved to New York City from Mendocino, California with her husband Mark, contacted McCloskey and volunteered to assist him. Like McCloskey, Germond had no experience in the criminal justice system when she joined CM. As it providentially turned out, she has a real gift for investigation. Together she and McCloskey have led CM in freeing scores of innocent inmates across the nation.
In 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Paul Henderson, began working on cases with CM. Henderson, while an investigative journalist for the Seattle Times, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for a series of investigative articles that vindicated a Seattle man falsely convicted of rape. Henderson lives and works in Seattle as a full time CM staff investigator.
Exonerations and One Failure Finish Out CM’s First Ten Years
Among the many petitions for help that arrived at McCloskey’s doorstep were two death row cases which piqued McCloskey and Germond’s interest – that of Texas death row inmate Clarence Brandley and Louisiana death row inmate Jimmy Wingo. Both men had been convicted of murders and were due to die within months. For obvious reasons McCloskey and Germond assigned those cases the highest priority. After meeting both men in early 1987, McCloskey decided to investigate both cases. Both were CM’s first foray into cases outside NJ and those involving the death penalty.
Working with Brandley’s Houston based attorneys Mike DeGuerin and Paul Nugent, McCloskey brought forward the star witness for the prosecution who admitted he lied at Brandley’s 1980 trial. This recantation, plus the CBS 60 Minutes broadcast on the Brandley case, resulted in a stay of execution as well as more witnesses coming forward with testimony pointing to Brandley’s innocence and the guilt of other men. Brandley was ultimately freed in January 1990. The book White Lies by Nick Davies tells the story of Mr. Brandley’s wrongful conviction and ultimate exoneration.
In 1989 CM was instrumental in freeing two other NJ innocent men, Jimmy Landano and Damaso Vega. Mr. Landano was falsely convicted of a 1977 Hudson County murder of a police officer during an armed robbery. Mr. Vega was finally freed after spending seven years in prison for someone else’s Monmouth County murder of a family friend.
Joyce Ann Brown was freed in 1989, the first woman exonerated through CM’s efforts. Ms. Brown spent over nine years in prison for a Dallas, Texas murder she did not commit. Again, CM convinced CBS’s 60 Minutes to broadcast her story. Her book was published in 1990.
First Celebrity Fundraiser
CM’s first celebrity fundraiser featured the acclaimed singer, Tony Bennett. The event was attended by 250 people, and generously hosted by attorneyBarry Tarlow at his Bel-Air home in Los Angeles, CA. Renowned attorney Johnny Cochran, whom CM would work with on the Geronimo Pratt case in 1997, was the featured speaker at this 1995 event.
Fifteen More Successes
During this decade CM freed 14 people in the United States and one in Canada. A few of these cases became CM’s firstsin the area of DNA, and impact on the awareness of wrongful convictions on the public.
Charles Dabbs was our first DNA exoneree. Mr. Dabbs was freed in August 1991 after spending nine years in prison for a Westchester County, NY sexual assault.
A year later, in 1992, working with Canadian attorneys Hersh Wolch and David Aspers, CM freed David Milgaard, our first Canadian exoneree. Mr. Milgaard was falsely imprisoned for 23 years for a Saskatoon, Canada rape and murder of Gail Miller. In 1998, six years after Mr. Milgaard’s freedom, DNA proved that the real killer was Larry Fisher, a serial rapist. Fisher was subsequently tried and convicted.
In 1992 CM was featured in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Newsweek as a result of securing the release of two Los Angeles men after 18 years of wrongful imprisonment, Clarence Chance and Benny Powell. CM worked with attorney Barry Tarlow to secure this exoneration.
Profiling the wrongful conviction of David Alexander and Harry Granger, CBS’s 60 Minutes aired its third CM case in 1998. Tragically, the Louisiana judiciary was unmoved by CM’s exculpatory evidence and Mr. Alexander and Mr. Granger ultimately spent 30 years in Louisiana prisons before we could free them on parole in 2006. The Louisiana Parole Board freed them based on CM’s presentation of their innocence. Attorney Peggy Woodward worked tirelessly with CM on this case.
Ellen Reasonover is the second woman CM freed. Ms. Reasonover was falsely arrested in 1983 for a St. Louis, MO murder. Working with lawyer Cheryl Pilate of Wyrsch, Hobbs & Mirakian, CM succeeded in exonerating her in 1999.
We obtain and study the entire written record of the case. These materials include the preliminary hearing, trial transcripts, and post conviction hearing transcripts. Also examined are all discovery materials such as witness statements, police reports, and forensic reports. Our volunteer case workers help us digest this voluminous amount of information.
We conduct a thorough field investigation in order to develop the new evidence required to overturn a false conviction.
This includes location and interviewing any and all witnesses who have any direct or indirect knowledge of the case and its characters, no matter where they reside in the U.S. or Canada.
Spanning this decade was our work for Kerry Max Cook who was wrongly convicted in Tyler, Texas and sentenced to death. CM went through three retrials on behalf of Mr. Cook. During this time, McCloskey worked with attorneys Paul Nugent,Steven Rocket Rosen andCheryl Wattley. Mr. Cook’s case is, and will likely remain, the most costly in terms of time consumed and money spent in CM’s history. It was well worth it. Mr. Cook was freed from death row in 1997. This heinous 1977 Tyler, TX murder is chronicled in a book published in 2007 by Harper & Collins entitled Chasing Justice, and written by Mr. Cook.
In July 1998 James Landano’s 22-year ordeal was finally over with the acquittal in a retrial of his 1976 Hudson County, NJ conviction for the murder of a police officer. CM and attorney Paul Casteleiro delivered the justice in this retrial. CM had freed Mr. Landano in 1989 when a Federal District judge reversed his conviction. It took nine years for the State’s appeal of that decision to exhaust itself in failure. The State then decided to retry him. In that nine year hiatus Mr. Landano was restricted to his house. After his acquittal, a huge party was held at McCloskey’s home, attended by his supporters, including the entire jury who had found him innocent!
Work and Staff Grows
Since 1992 CM has received annually 1,100 to 1,200 new requests for assistance; therefore, within this decade, CM’s extremely small staff reviewed over 9,000 inmate letters from all over the United States. It is quite an enterprise to vet these petitions, separating the wheat from the chaff. CM finally computerized its operation, allowing CM’s Prospective Case Management Unit created by Kate Germond, to function more effectively and efficiently.
In 1999, Heather McNally joined the staff, taking on the newly created position of full time Case Development Manger, supervising the growing number of volunteer case workers CM is fortunate to have.
Lisa Kurtz has been the Office Administrator and executive assistant to Mr. McCloskey since 1998. CM’s “window to the world”, Ms. Kurtz interfaces with all manner of folks who contact CM for one reason or another.
CM’s number of full time staff amazingly totaled only five by the end of this decade.
Board of Directors
CM remains fortunate to have a supportive Board of Directors who having been working with us since the early days of this decade. James Regan, a Princeton based investor and president of Harbourton Enterprises with strong ties to Wall Street, joined CM’s Board in 1992. Mr. Regan introduced CM to New York City’s financial world which enabled us to materially raise funds and dramatically increase our budget. Attorney Charles Crow of Crow & Associates in Princeton and Edwin Pisani, a Partner of Ernst & Young in New York, joined the Board in the mid 1990s as did renowned attorney Theodore Wells of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison in New York joined the Board. Rev. Thomas H. McNally, an ordained minister and retired NJ State computer/financial manager because a valued member of CM’s Board during this decade as well.
The year 2002 marked the 20th anniversary of Centurion Ministries, Inc., and we held our largest ever BBQ in Jim McCloskey’s back yard to celebrate! In attendance were 18 CM exonerees, their families, attorneys, investigators, forensic experts, benefactors, and friends & supporters of CM – some 400 people! It was a very special event, bringing together a truly amazing group of people.
Twenty-four Freedoms in Ten Years
This decade was our most productive since 1983 in terms of performance of CM’s mission. CM freed 24 innocent men serving life sentences for the crimes of others. Included among these is the second Canadian exoneree, James Driskell, who did 13 years of wrongful imprisonment for a 1990 Winnipeg murder. Mr. Driskell was freed in 2003.
CM’s partner on this Canadian case was attorney James Lockyer, and AIDWYC, an organization that credits CM and our work on the David Milgaard case for inspiring its creation.
Four of the cases during this decade were multi-defendant cases, making up a total of ten factually innocent people, all of whom we freed. In 2003, with the assistance of Ohio attorneys James Owenand Rick Ketcham, CM freed and vindicated Timothy Howard and Gary James in Columbus, Ohio who were convicted in 1977 for a murder that initially landed them on Ohio’s death row.
Three men from Long Island, NY were released after spending 18 years in prison for a Nassau County rape/homicide from which DNA testing exonerated them. One of the three, John Kogut, was retried in 2005. CM’s KateGermond and attorney Paul Casteleiro conducted these proceedings. Mr. Kogut was acquitted and a week later all charges were dropped against his two co-defendants, Dennis Halstead, and John Restivo.
After 29 yeas in federal prison for a 1976 Washington, DC murder, Wayne Eastridge, Nick Sousa, and Michael Damien were exonerated in 2005 as a result of the dogged work done by Kate Germond and attorney John Zwerling, and the Washington, DC law firm of Wilmer & Cutler.
Then in 2006, CM secured the release of David Alexander and Harry Granger after 30 years of false imprisonment for a 1976 Iberia Parish, Louisiana murder. Working with New Orleans attorney Margaret Woodward, CM convinced Louisiana’s Parole Board of their innocence. Eight years earlier in 1998, CBS’s 60 Minutes produced “Who Killed Louis Gladu?” a story on this wrongful prosecution. This was used to great effect in persuading the Parole Board to free both men.
This same decade also witnessed the liberation of Louis Thomas of Philadelphia, PA and Walter Lomax of Baltimore Maryland who spent a staggering 40 years and 39 years respectively of false imprisonment—by far materially more than any other of CM’s exonerees. Mr. Thomas was freed from a 1966 Philadelphia murder conviction in 2004 by Governor Casey. Philadelphia, PA attorneys Dennis Cogan and Len Sosnov worked hand in hand with CM in convincing the Governor to free Mr. Thomas.
Mr. Lomax was freed by a Baltimore judge who came to believe in Mr. Lomax’s innocence in December 2006. Baltimore attorneys Larry Nathans and Booth Ripke skillfully navigated the release of Walter Lomax with CM.
Benjamine Spencer was declared factually innocent by a Dallas, TX judge in March 2008 following a July 2007 evidentiary hearing. The wheels of justice grind slowly, and the decade ended without a decision by Texas’ highest court on this matter, the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Working with attorney Paul Casteleiro again, CM freed Clarence Moore in 2001 after a 15 year imprisonment for an Atlantic County, NJ sexual assault. In 2006 the NJ Supreme Court issued a ruling in his case that set a new precedent by disallowing hypnotically refreshed testimony as evidence in a court of law. In 2009 the State of NJ agreed to compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.
In 2008 NBC’s Dateline aired a special two hour feature on the Barry Beach case, a 1979 Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Montana murder which made a significant impact on viewers. Never before had CM received so many inquiries on a case due to its broadcast on national TV. A Killing at Poplar River is often re-aired.
It is a rare but welcomed occurrence when a District Attorney’s office cooperates in overturning a wrongful conviction. In October of 2009 the Dallas DA’s office joined with CM and attorney Cheryl Wattley to successfully petition a Dallas judge to release Richard Miles. Mr. Miles had served 15 years for a 1994 Dallas murder.
CM’s four year effort on the behalf of Roger Coleman failed in May 1992 with his death by electric chair. Mr. Coleman had been sentenced to death 10 years earlier for the murder and rape of his sister-in-law in Grundy, VA. Still believing in his innocence, Jim McCloskey convinced Governor Warner to authorize post execution DNA. In January 2006 the DNA results established once and for all the guilt of Mr. Coleman. Mr. McCloskey held a press conference in Richmond, VA stating that his belief in Mr. Coleman’s innocence was misplaced and wrong.
In 2008 two of our board members retired. Rev. Thomas H. McNally had served as the Treasure since the formation of the Board and T. Joseph Semrod, the former Vice Chairman of Fleet Boston Financial, served five years as a member. Succeeding these gentlemen in 2009 were Lee Gladden of Princeton International Management and Bill Sword of Wm. Sword & Co. Inc. Both men are in the financial investment profession and are long standing Princeton residents.
Famed author John Grisham came to Princeton, NJ as the featured speaker at an April 13, 2010 fundraiser held at the Nassau Presbyterian Church. With a capacity of 700 people, the sanctuary was sold out to an audience eager to hear the well-known writer speak about the flaws of the criminal justice system and his non-fiction book, The Innocent Man The audience was treated to a surprise guest as well, the renowned stage, movie, and TV actor Brian Dennehy. Both speakers transfixed the audience as they spoke passionately about their concern for the nation’s convicted innocent and CM’s work to free and exonerate those who suffer such a plight. Mr. Grisham & Mr. Dennehy generously donated their time and expenses as an in-kind gift to our mission for which we are deeply grateful. However, our most important guests of the evening were our exonerees; the real people who suffered years of wrongful imprisonment. Their stories were heartbreaking and moved the audience to tears.
As CM moves into its fourth decade of work, we look forward to securing justice and redemption for those whom we currently serve and those whom we will serve in the future.