Ministry seeks to save innocent people in prison

Centurion wins reputation for careful reinvestigations

August 09, 2001|By L. Stuart Ditzen | L. Stuart Ditzen,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - On a Friday afternoon in June, the telephone rang in the cramped offices of Centurion Ministries in Princeton, N.J. Somebody answered and, in the mildly chaotic atmosphere that pervades the place, yelled: "Paul's on the phone."

Jim McCloskey sat forward at his desk and grabbed the receiver.

"Hi, Paul," he said. Pause. "Reversed and remanded?" A grin spread over McCloskey's face. "That's terrific!"

Paul Casteleiro, a Hoboken, N.J., defense lawyer, was passing on news of a long-awaited court ruling.

Centurion Ministries had done it again: Against huge odds, this unusual little nonprofit organization had won a new trial - and probably, freedom - for Clarence McKinley Moore, a Cape May County, N.J., man condemned to life in prison for a crime he insisted he did not commit.

Twenty-five times, the 59-year-old McCloskey has received calls such as this one. Twenty-five new trials have been granted to men and women Centurion Ministries had undertaken to help.

McCloskey gave up a career as a business consultant in Philadelphia in 1979 to go to Princeton Theological Seminary. While serving as a prison chaplain, he became absorbed with the case of a man he believed to be innocent. That set his life's course - "my call," McCloskey says. In 1983, after finishing the seminary, he founded Centurion Ministries.

It is an improbable, eccentric, eclectic organization, religious and not religious at the same time, that does an odd sort of work extraordinarily well.

Centurion's mission is to save innocent people who are in prison for life, or who face the death penalty. But these people must be - to the satisfaction of McCloskey's demanding analysis - truly innocent. And there must be a credible, substantial basis to believe in and to demonstrate that innocence.

Two decades

In nearly two decades, the organization has won freedom for prisoners in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, Virginia, Missouri, Texas, Illinois and New York.

It has established a national reputation for its painstaking reinvestigations of criminal cases in which McCloskey and a small circle of associates have turned up new evidence, documented misconduct by police and prosecutors, and proved eyewitness identifications wrong.

Three of those freed have been from Philadelphia, including most recently, Eddie Baker, convicted of murder in 1974 and released in 1999. Six have been from New Jersey.

Most recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit granted a new trial to Moore, who was convicted of a 1986 rape in Somers Point, N.J.

For 15 years, he had protested from behind bars that he was innocent.

Centurion hired Paul Casteleiro to press Moore's appeal on civil rights grounds, seeking a rarely granted order for his release from prison - a writ of habeas corpus.

In a stunning ruling, the federal appeals court granted that request on June 22, throwing out Moore's conviction and ordering him retried in 180 days or set free. The court said Moore's constitutional rights had been violated at his trial in Atlantic County in 1987 - and that, as a black man accused of a sexual attack on a white woman, he had been the victim of a racist prosecution.

Last month, Moore, 52, a former masonry contractor who lost his business, his home and his family after his conviction, was released on $100,000 bail to await a decision by the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office on whether he will be retried.

Who posted bail?

Centurion Ministries. Once McCloskey's organization makes a commitment to a prisoner, it goes all the way. Every page of transcript from hearings and trial is reviewed. Every police report and witness statement is studied. Old witnesses are tracked down and reinterviewed. New ones are hunted up. Lab tests on evidence are performed. Lawyers are hired. And, if the prison door swings open, Centurion posts bail and helps those freed get resettled in civilian life.

Called by God

All this McCloskey does, he said, because he believes he has been called to do it by God. A native of Havertown, Pa., and a lifelong bachelor, McCloskey was in his late 30s, working as an international consultant to Japanese companies, driving a Lincoln Continental, and living in a comfortable home in Malvern, Pa., when he decided to make a change in his life. He wrapped up his business obligations and entered the Presbyterian seminary.

He chose the name for his organization from the words of a Roman centurion in the Gospel of Luke who said after Jesus' crucifixion: "Surely, this one was innocent."

"But it's a secular work," McCloskey was quick to say. "As a matter of fact, when an inmate starts using Jesus on me, I get cantankerous. I tell him, `I don't care whether you're saved or not. Let's put Jesus aside for the moment.'

"We are compelled and we're driven," he said, "by the facts and circumstances and the characters of the case."

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