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Nov 01, 2020 08:21AM ● By Michael Harris

Guilty Until Proven Innocent


Last year I reviewed John Grisham’s novel The Guardians, which at first glance seemed like many of his previous legal whodunits. In it, former criminal prosecutor Cullen Post works as a clergyman for Guardians Ministries, a small group that tries to exonerate wrongly convicted murderers on death row. The book follows Post’s efforts to prove the innocence of mistakenly convicted individuals.

Grisham’s novel and the Guardian Ministries are based on the true story of Jim McCluskey and his Centurion Ministries, which try to exonerate innocent convicted prisoners. McCluskey tells his story with dignity and poignancy in his non-fiction book When the Truth is Not Told: A Memoir of Faith, Justice, and Freedom for the Wrongly Convicted. The horrors of Grisham’s novel are magnified in real life cases of people presumed “guilty until proven innocent” and rogue law enforcement agencies that falsified evidence to convict innocent people and keep them in prison long after exculpatory evidence was presented. McCluskey’s book is eye-opening, gut wrenching, and shows the sorry state of police and district attorneys when they refused to acknowledge the convicted may actually be innocent. These real-life stories are so outrageous they made my blood boil!


Grisham provides a powerful forward to McCluskey’s book, calling him “the dean of all innocence advocates, the exonerator.” Grisham discusses “how McCluskey’s faith in the justice system was shaken by police who lied on the witness stand, prosecutors who knew, and judges who turned a blind eye to the whole thing.”


McCluskey was a seminary student in 1980 when he was assigned to be a chaplain ministering to violent offenders sentenced to death or life imprisonment at New Jersey’s maximum-security Trenton State Prison. It was here that he met Jorge De Los Santos, a heroin addict convicted of murder years earlier. After repeated visits, McCluskey was convinced that De Los Santos was innocent and wrongly convicted. With no legal training, McCluskey discovered evidence that the “testimony from a jailhouse witness that convicted De Los Santos reeked of perjury and that the prosecutor knew it.” He also found new evidence that confirmed De Los Santos’ innocence and helped set him free after nine years in prison. McCluskey had found a “higher calling” than preaching, exonerating those wrongly convicted and sent to death row. To help his effort, in 1983 he founded Centurion Ministries, the first American organization “devoted to overturning wrongful convictions.” McCloskey’s book includes 12 stories of wins and losses, including two men McCloskey believes were innocent but executed anyway. As of the book’s publication, with the help of volunteers, lawyers, and forensic experts, Centurion has freed 63 innocent convicts. And most of these happened before DNA evidence could exonerate the innocent. 


Perhaps the best-known innocence organization is The Innocence Project, based at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at New York’s Yeshiva University. Founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, it exonerates the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and tries to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.


Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson says, "Jim McCloskey and Centurion are pioneers in the struggle to expose the tragedy of innocent people wrongly convicted and sent to prison in America...No one has illuminated this problem more thoughtfully and persistently." Unfortunately, the bad apples in law-enforcement continue to coerce witnesses to testify falsely against the accused and withhold and fabricate evidence to uphold their convictions in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. McCloskey’s “riveting story of devotion, sacrifice, and vindication” concludes “Sometimes, the truth won’t set you free. Then again, sometimes it will.” Our criminal justice system can certainly do better.