By Jess Hoogendoorn
Thousands of innocent Americans languish in prisons today and have continually been jailed for the brutal crimes of other people, according to James McCloskey.
McCloskey received the Rider University Law and Justice Program’s 12th Annual Distinguished Achievement Award for his dedication to freeing the wrongly convicted. He has exonerated 40 inmates serving life sentences or on death row since he began his endeavor in 1983.
The founder and executive director of Centurion Ministries Inc. McCloskey gave a lecture entitled “Convicting the Innocent in America” in the Cavalla Room of the Bart Luedeke Center on Tuesday.
McCloskey said he receives more than a thousand requests per year from inmates seeking his help. However, only about 200 cases fit the criteria of his program, and out of those 200, only two or three can be taken on each year, he said. McCloskey explained that he only accepts cases in which the person is believed to be innocent.
“We’d like to think that we’re interested in the truth,” said McCloskey. “We’re certainly not a bit interested in freeing people who we have doubts about their innocence.”
McCloskey was selected for the Distinguished Achievement Award by the faculty of the Law and Justice program because they felt McCloskey’s work addressed relevant issues that students, as well as the general public, need to be aware of.
“The faculty of the Law and Justice Program unanimously chose Mr. McCloskey because of his ongoing commitment to ensuring that the American justice system works correctly,” said Dr. Pamela Brown, director of the program. “The tragedy of innocent people spending decades in prison or even being executed is a very real problem for all of us. Mr. McCloskey’s organization has done and continues to do much good work to prove the innocence of such people.”
McCloskey was inspired to establish this program while he was a student chaplain at Trenton State Prison. He was so moved by an inmate’s pleas of innocence that he took a year off from school and investigated the man’s case. McCloskey found that the man was innocent, and he was eventually exonerated.
“You can imagine that it’s a surreal experience when you are sitting in a court room as a defendant, next to a lawyer, and you are hearing the prosecutor argue about what a vile human being you are,” he said “And how guilty you are of this crime when you know, nobody else knows, but you know, that you’re an innocent person.”
McCloskey also discussed the influence DNA testing has had on the criminal justice system. More than 200 men have been exonerated since 1989 by DNA evidence, he said. According to McCloskey, DNA has “changed the landscape” of the criminal justice system. He also pointed out that 80 percent of cases have no DNA evidence, despite what many people assume based on television shows.
McCloskey also addressed the situations in which people are wrongly convicted. He spoke about false confessions, false testimonies, and incompetent prosecutors and law enforcement.
“[Prior to 1983] I thought we had the best criminal justice system in the world,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine, and I assumed that the police and the prosecutors would never bring anyone to the bar of justice without clear, convincing and credible evidence of guilt. Well, today I see with very different eyes.”
McCloskey also discussed how the United States handles overturned cases compared to Canada. He explained that when a convicted person is found innocent of a serious crime in Canada, an investigation is held for about six months to try and figure out “what went wrong.” McCloskey said that although this is not done in the United States, he would like to see it happen.
“[The Canadian investigation] is a very fair process,” said McCloskey. “It’s a very thorough process, and it gets to the bottom of what happened in this conviction. Where and why did things go wrong and what can we learn from it?”