New Jersey, 1979
I guess if you saw him on the street, you might think he had just stepped off the floor of a disco, with his dusky good looks and his trimmed mustache and the tight shirts that were the style back in those days, although it was unlikely you’d see him on the street, and he was beginning to wonder if he’d ever see the streets again. Ever.
Jorge de los Santos paced back and forth in his jail cell in what was then known as Rahway State Prison. Maybe four steps to cover the entire length of it; if he reached his arms out, he could almost touch the walls on both sides at once. A toilet sat in the middle of the back wall; his bed covered most of the left side of the cell. And as he paced, he asked himself a question, over and over, a question for which there was no answer.
Soy un hombre inocente. ¿Cómo pueden encarcelarme por el resto de mi vida?
I am an innocent man. How can they put me in jail for the rest of my life?
Rahway was the place for housing the most violent, dangerous men in the state. It was an imposing structure—a huge copper dome over a large open central area, with long hallways radiating out like spokes of a wheel from a central hub. Those hallways were lined with cells stacked four levels tall. It was a fortress that told the outside world these prisoners were under control. But inside the opposite was true: The halls were so long, and the far reaches were so separated from that central area, and the prison was so overcrowded and understaffed, that chaos bubbled under the surface of every long, tedious day. Prisoners fashioned weapons out of whatever they could, and if someone crossed them, they could kill him in an instant. You had to watch your step around the guards as well, because they wouldn’t think twice about getting physical with the inmates if they got out of line, or even if they didn’t.
Jorge kept his head down when he was out among the other prisoners. He had good street sense. He’d been a heroin addict; he knew how to protect himself, who to watch out for and who to avoid. He never met the most famous of the prison’s inmates, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, but he knew all about him, as did everyone else: By the time Jorge arrived at Rahway, the fight to free the innocent Carter had gone nationwide. Bob Dylan immortalized him in song and lots of celebrities rallied to the cause. It seemed like just a matter of time before justice was done and Carter would be freed.
Some people, thought Jorge, had all the luck.
Jorge tried to keep himself sane, but all around him there was pain and despair. So much so that every guard was required to carry a “cut-down knife”—a curved heavy blade that folded into a metal handle—to cut down the men who tried to commit suicide.
Jorge was determined not to be one of them. He had reason to live. And he had reason to keep hope alive, hope that one day he would walk out of this prison a free man. His reason was named Elena.
Elena was a stunner, all flowing black hair and jet-black eyes, full-blooded Cherokee and as devoted to Jorge as he was to her. She came to see him at least twice a week, every Wednesday night and Saturday, sometimes Sunday as well. At first he told her not to; he said she should forget about him. But she knew he didn’t mean it, and of course he didn’t: He lived for her, he stayed alive for her, he thought about her all day.
And on this evening, he thought about the one bit of luck that had shined down on him in this awful hellhole: Prison officials had agreed to allow him and Elena to get married, in the prison chapel. The big day was just two weeks away.
There were, now and then, diversions that helped pass the oppressively long days: a boxing match, a concert, a movie. And as often as he was allowed to, he would spend time out in the yard with other inmates he knew from the Newark streets. But when Jorge sat in his cell at night, he would find himself lost in his own silent thoughts: wondering if, as someone had done for Hurricane Carter, anyone would ever take up his cause and help him find his way to freedom.
At that same moment, the noise level at my house was pretty high. I was living in a ranch-style home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, about twenty-five miles west of the city, in a town called Paoli, a nice, quiet, upscale place. I’d been at a management consulting firm called Hay Associates and making north of $50,000 a year, pretty good money for 1979, but had decided to give that up and make a big change in my life, and tonight was my going-away party. It was male only—twenty high school and college buddies—and it was getting about as raucous as you’d expect. But we’d saved a little surprise for them: One of the guys who helped me organize the party had said, “Hey, Matt”—the nickname came from my great-uncle Matthew McCloskey, who’d been JFK’s ambassador to Ireland and was probably the most well-known guy in town—“Hey, Matt, I got a great idea. Why don’t we bring in a stripper?”
So we worked out the details, and about nine o’clock that night, the same time that Jorge de los Santos was sitting quietly in his cell, listening to the subdued voices of the most dangerous men in the state echoing down the long hallways, I was drinking Maker’s Mark with twenty good friends as Sandy the Stripper walked in the front door.
She was about thirty-five, brunette, couldn’t have been more than five feet five, with a pretty, open face. She strode in the door with a boombox and a pink rug, and you should have seen the looks on the guys’ faces. I took her in a back room and we negotiated the details—$150 for half an hour, one lap dance per customer.
So she came out and put on her music, and everyone was hooting and hollering, and she got naked except for her panties and sat on everyone’s lap, and did a dance on the pink rug, and then went in the back room to get ready to leave.
Then one of the guests dragged me into the back room with her, and he said, “Sandy, do you know who this guy is? And what he’s doing?” And she said, “No, I have no idea.”
“This is his going-away party,” he told her. “He’s going away. To the seminary.”
She stared at me, long and hard, trying to figure out if we were putting her on.
“You’re going to be a minister?” she finally asked.
“Yes,” I said sheepishly.
She looked over at my friend and then back at me.
“Get back in the other room,” she said, pulling her shirt off. “I’ll give you guys one more round.”
How Jorge de los Santos would become the most important person in my life and how, I say humbly, I became the most important person in his still leave me with a sense of awe and wonder. All the odd occurrences that led us to each other, and put me on the path that I have followed to this day, leave me with no way to think about it other than that this is what God wanted me to do. You may think of it in any way you choose, and I’ll be the first one to say that my faith has been shaken many, many times—shattered, even—but to this day I can only look back on the day Jorge came into my life, and I into his, as a matter of divine providence.
The party with Sandy the Stripper happened in late August 1979, and I did enter the seminary right after that. But by chance—or not—my seminary work would soon lead me to become a student chaplain behind prison bars, and sometime after that I would take a year’s leave of absence from the seminary and dedicate myself to proving that Jorge de los Santos was an innocent man.
Out of my battle to liberate Jorge grew my life’s work. I went on to found Centurion Ministries, dedicated to freeing the innocent. We have now freed sixty-three innocent men and women, all of whom were serving life sentences or were on death row, had collectively spent 1,330 years falsely imprisoned for the violent crimes of others, and were indigent and had no other path to freedom. They had only one other trait in common: I believed, in my heart, that they were innocent, and my colleagues at Centurion believed it as well; and we believed, truly and deeply, that we had no choice but to work to set them free. Despite our name, it mattered not a whit to us if those whom we served, or those who worked with us, had any religious affiliation or interest. All that mattered was the truth.
When I look back on all the simple twists of fate that brought me here, I can still put my hands on the first one that set in motion the chain of events that led me to my calling in life. It was in the mid-1970s; I was living the life of a successful American suburban businessman, commuting on the train from Paoli into Philadelphia to work. On the ride, I’d read the paper, and I used to cut out articles that I found inspiring. One morning, in September 1976, I read a story in The Philadelphia Inquirer about an investigator in a public defender’s office named Fred Hogan who spent thousands of hours, all on his own time, reinvestigating the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer wrongly convicted of a triple murder in Paterson, New Jersey (and who, I would realize later, was in prison with Jorge de los Santos).
I remember thinking, this Fred Hogan is amazing; the guy is exhausting himself, trying to free an innocent man. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to live your life doing something so important, so purposeful. Just one of those passing thoughts you have on a train at eight in the morning. Nothing more than that, an idea that drifts by like one of the sailboats on the Schuylkill River that I’d cross on the way into the city. It would be years before I realized how deeply that article had affected me.
I got to know Rubin Carter over the years, along with his lesser-known co-defendant, John Artis (who is the unsung hero in that case, by the way, but that’s another story). I first met Rubin in Toronto around 1995 when he and some associates started an innocence project called the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted and they asked me to speak. Rubin used to razz me; he said that when I started freeing innocent people from prison, he had petitioned me to help in his case. I know I never heard from him, or I surely would have gotten involved. I would have jumped at the opportunity just to meet him. But he gave me a lot of grief about it nevertheless. In a good-hearted way, of course.
We stayed friends through the years. When Rubin was freed in 1985, he publicly vowed to never again set foot in New Jersey, and he never did—with the exception, in 2002, of coming to the twentieth anniversary celebration of Centurion at my home in Princeton. He asked if he could bring Fred Hogan with him.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “He’s my hero!” I told him the story of reading the Inquirer article about Fred twenty-five years earlier. Rubin got a kick out of that and promised to bring Fred along. It was the first time I’d stood face to face with the man whose story, in a very real sense, was an inspiration for my own journey.
But when I enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary’s master of divinity degree program, I had no idea of the path that lay ahead of me.
Along the way, as I said, a lot would happen to shake my faith. I encountered police who lied on the witness stand, and prosecutors who knew it, and judges who turned a blind eye to the whole thing. I learned how terribly inaccurate eyewitness testimony could be, and how many people were sent to prison—or to their death—based on that flimsy, unreliable testimony. I learned that perjury on the stand was not only present; it was pervasive.
I learned how easy it was to get an innocent person to sign a confession just to end hour upon hour of unremitting interrogation, their decision hanging on the belief that recanting the confession the next day would set everything straight and put an end to these false accusations. And how incredibly hard it is—impossible, sometimes—to recant that testimony the next morning.
My work with Jorge de los Santos began ten years before DNA evidence came into use as a way to prove innocence and thirteen years before the founding of an extremely effective organization known as the Innocence Project, which has used DNA evidence to free hundreds of innocent inmates.
Like most people in the late 1970s, I still believed in the inherent justice of the criminal justice system—that cops had no reason to lie, that prosecutors would never want to put an innocent person behind bars, that judges were interested in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
I do not believe that now. What I have seen over the last forty years has shown me exactly the opposite. Many days, I wondered how it was possible the system had become so corrupt. And many nights, I looked up at the sky and wondered how, if there were a God, that God could possibly let these people suffer so. Some nights, I still do. So this is the story of how I learned what a cruel, mindless, mean machine the justice system can be. How, in trying to combat evil in the world, the system can become just as evil—more so, because it is evil done in the name of all of us.
But this is also the story of faith. How I learned to look that evil in the eye and still understand there is good in the world. And how, if you allow it, you can become a catalyst for that good.
I want to tell you the stories of some of the horrible injustices I’ve seen, and how we’ve managed to right some of those wrongs—including freeing two inmates from Texas’s infamous death row. One of them was just eleven days away from execution. The other, just six. And I’ll be honest and admit when we went wrong: I’ll tell you about the inmates that Centurion fought for because I believed they were innocent, but later found out they weren’t.
Copyright © 2020 by Jim McCloskey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.