Minister to society's despised

Centurion: Seeking to fill a spiritual void, a big-city consultant traded his Town Car for a Pinto, economics for evangelism, and became a seeker of justice for the wrongly convicted.

April 22, 2001|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

PRINCETON, N.J. - When a man found guilty of murdering an 11-year-old girl with an ice pick was freed, James C. McCloskey celebrated. He was thrilled, too, when a convicted cop killer got out of prison, ecstatic when a man jailed for raping, mutilating and murdering a woman was ordered off death row and sent back to his family.

He was happy because the convicts were innocent, and he is the man who freed them. A former Princeton theology student, McCloskey is a minister to the despised.

For more than two decades he has been one of those idealistic do-gooders most prosecutors would rather not meet, one who has looked past chilling labels placed on people - rapist, cop killer, child murderer - to burrow into the evidence that led to their convictions. Twenty-nine times he has found enough flawed evidence and new information to free prisoners, including a convicted murderer released earlier this month in Toledo, Ohio.

Now he's trying to free Michael Austin, a Baltimore man convicted of murder in 1975. Not only is Austin innocent, McCloskey maintains, but he's a good person who will do fine once he's released.

At 59, McCloskey could pass for a college guidance counselor as he sits in an office outside Princeton University. His collared black sweater is buttoned to the top. What hair remains on his head is combed neatly back on the sides of a shiny dome. When he throws on his eyeglasses, he resembles an owl.

"I really believe that this is my calling," he says in a booming voice, surrounded by boxes of legal files describing the most heinous of crimes.

Then he leans forward, slaps an open palm on his desk, and the volume of his voice alternately rises and falls with almost every word.

"Now, I know that talking about Christ and this being a calling makes a lot of people nervous," he says. "But I can't help that. It's what I believe."

For the record, McCloskey wants people to know he's a regular guy. He goes by "Jim." He was raised in a Philadelphia suburb, but he is all city. He was a Navy officer, a veteran of the Vietnam War. He drinks Knob Creek bourbon, Wild Turkey in a pinch. He's a baseball fan and is sick of the Phillies losing all the time. He curses.

But he won't try to free the guilty or offer excuses for what they have done. He won't spend his time on people who have been wrongly convicted if he doesn't think they can fit back into society.

"I'm not interested in casting pearls before swine," McCloskey says. "Before we commit to trying to help someone, it's important not only that they're factually innocent. A second criteria is, what kind of people are these?"

And if his work helping inmates seems altruistic, the people who think so are being generous. There's self-interest in his work.

Freeing innocent people, he says, has unlocked something from within, helped him from feeling guilty about his life.

Living the good life

At 37 years old, McCloskey had a degree in economics and a graduate degree in international management, was single and lived a life many people would envy.

He owned a house near Philadelphia, a sweet silver Lincoln Town Car with red leather seats, had a six-figure career as a business consultant creating ties between the United States and Japan.

But something was missing.

"I was spiritually bankrupt," he says. "I felt as if my life was empty, inauthentic. I wasn't doing anything for anybody except the corporate world."

So in 1979, knowing his parents, his siblings and his bosses would think he was either having a midlife crisis or losing his mind, he gave up his job, rented out his house, stored his furniture, traded that smooth-riding Lincoln for a herky-jerky Pinto.

He enrolled in the Princeton Theological Seminary. He planned to earn his master of divinity degree in three years and then work to become an ordained minister.

But something happened on the way to the pulpit.

In his second year in the seminary, he volunteered to be a student chaplain at Trenton State Prison, where he met Jorge De Los Santos, convicted murderer. It changed both men, and many others, forever.

De Los Santos was accused of murdering a used-car salesman in Newark, N.J. He insisted to the naive student chaplain that he was innocent - as a lot of people in prison insist. But there was something compelling about his story, about how he was convicted based on the word of one man, about how De Los Santos was adamant the witness was a snitch working for the prosecution.

"I was haunted," McCloskey says, "by the possibility he was innocent."

So he decided to take a year off from the seminary, working exclusively on De Los Santos' case, using his life savings to investigate.

He knew nothing about the law. He approached lawyers, private investigators, anybody who he thought could help. That led him to Paul Casteleiro, an attorney in Hoboken, N.J., and to Steve Delaney, a private investigator who had worked on the Boston Strangler investigation years earlier and who has worked tirelessly on Austin's case in Baltimore.

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