Gumshoes fight to free inmates wrongly jailed

August 25, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Correspondent

Princeton, N.J. -- The ash blonde working in an office above Edith's Lingerie on Main Street here -- she with a taste for the eclectic -- could well be inmate Sam Malone's angel of mercy.

Two binders on Kate Germond's crowded bookshelf and a brown legal file at her feet hold the details of Malone's rape conviction in Maryland, a crime he says he didn't commit. And this 47-year-old former boutique owner-turned-criminal investigator says there's enough in the court records and police files to provoke her interest. And she can be provoked.

"I'm incredibly tenacious," says Ms. Germond. That attribute has been difficult for her ex-husbands -- of whom she's had three -- but great for her work as co-manager of Centurion Ministries Inc., an advocacy group that works for the release of those wrongly convicted.

On this summer day, in her tailored black cotton suit and black leather pumps, pinned-back hair and horn-rimmed glasses, Kate Germond looks more like a professor of English literature than a criminal investigator poking around decades-old murders and rapes.

Her desk, a hand-me-down polished mahogany table, and her office reflect her varied tastes: a pair of folk-art dolls, the memoirs of civil rights activist Andrew Young, a sampling of her collection of pig figurines, inflatable dinosaurs, framed quotations from the book of Isaiah and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a bookshelf crammed with mysteries (American and French), four versions of the Bible and criminal texts, a bottle of Scotch whisky for the road ("Johnny Walker Black and peanut butter are my medicine," she confides).

This gumshoe with a soul -- her business card says "advocate/investigator" -- spent much of her adult life in an artsy hamlet on the northern California coast. But she found her life's work in this university town beside a former seminarian who set out 14 years ago to prove innocent those imprisoned for life or sentenced to death.

So far, Centurion Ministries and its founder, lay minister James C. McCloskey, have helped free 13 people by turning up new evidence, exposing shoddy police work, convincing reluctant witnesses to come forward and liars to tell the truth. A convicted rapist in Virginia may be the 14th freed, a case in which Ms. Germond discovered evidence never given to the man's lawyer and in which DNA tests -- similar to those involved with O.J. Simpson's trial -- excluded him as the source of semen on the victim's underclothes.

"That's the purpose of Centurion Ministries -- to prove that they were innocent, not get them released because of trial error or some legal technicality," Ms. Germond says.

Along the way, she has won the confidence of Pagan motorcycle gang members, convinced an ex-husband of a rape victim to provide evidence -- his own semen -- that might help free a rapist, uncovered a "smoking gun" in police files.

Her credentials?

"Read a lot of mysteries. Snoopy. And charming if I have to be," says the plain-spoken Ms. Germond, daughter of a biologist and astronomer who was raised in rural Connecticut and lasted a year at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont., before heading for the West Coast.

The group's work began during Mr. McCloskey's days as student chaplain at a Trenton, N.J., prison where he met the first convicted murderer he would help set free. Today, Centurion is a year operation funded by churches, foundation grants and individuals.

"Very few cases get overturned once a conviction occurs," says Dennis J. Cogan, a Philadelphia lawyer who has worked with the group. "What McCloskey has done with Kate and their organization, they have taken 13 cases that are past Armageddon, which are past the last battle of the war. . . . The results are extraordinary."

The three paid staffers and a corps of volunteers work on cases of provable innocence, convicts with life or death sentences who "have nowhere to go, appeals denied and have no resources whatsoever to come to their aid to get them out of the box," says Mr. McCloskey, 52.

There is plenty of work. Hundreds of file folders fill several cabinets in Centurion's office. Among them is the case of Kirk Bloodsworth, the Eastern Shore man who won his freedom last year after serving nine years in prison for a rape-murder he says he didn't commit. After an initial review of the case, Ms. Germond encouraged the Bloodsworth family to have evidence resubmitted for DNA-testing that later excluded him as the source of semen found on the 9-year-old victim's underwear, and led to his release.

Not every request for help reviewed by Centurion becomes part of its caseload. In the Bloodsworth case, the Office of the Public Defender in Maryland and a Washington, D.C., lawyer stepped in.

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