Books: “When Truth Is All You Have” Tells Story of the Centurion Ministries' Role in the Modern Innocence Movement

When Truth is All You Have, a new memoir by Centurion Ministries founder Jim McCloskey (pictured) tells the story of what many consider to be the birth of the modern innocence movement. The book, written with former USA Today national editor Philip Lerman, and released in July 2020, describes McCloskey’s personal and professional evolution as he created Centurion Ministries in 1983, the first-ever organization dedicated to fighting wrongful convictions in the United States.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s review for the Washington Post praises When Truth is All You Have as “a riveting and infuriating examination of criminal prosecutions, revealing how easy it is to convict the wrong person and how nearly impossible it is to undo the error.” Kirkus Review calls it “[a] heartfelt and heart-rending story of fighting wrongful convictions” comprised of “[c]ompassionate tales from a dedicated warrior for justice.”

The book includes 12 case studies of wins and losses, including two men McCloskey believes were innocent who were executed. McCloskey shared a last meal with one of them, Virginia death-row prisoner, Roger Coleman. Fourteen years later, he helped persuade Virginia Governor Mark Warner to authorize posthumous DNA testing, which implicated Coleman. “I’ll be haunted until the day I die about whether Roger did it or not,” McCloskey told NPR’s Terry Gross on an episode of Fresh Air that was broadcast July 21, 2020. “I’ve traced Roger Coleman’s movements that night from 10 o’clock to 11 o’clock. The time of death was 10:30 to 11:00. … I’ve spoken with everybody he’s spoken to during that one hour, what time he was there, what they talked about. And I don’t know how he had the opportunity or even the motivation to do this.”

The book also recounts the case of Texas death-row prisoner, Kerry Max Cook, a case McCloskey says that tested his faith in God. “I was with Kerry through three retrials throughout the 1990s,” McCloskey told Gross. “The first retrial was a 6-to-6 hung jury. Second retrial, Kerry was re-convicted and sent back to death row. I investigated that case from top to bottom. I sat at the defense table during the trial helping the lawyer. There was no question in my mind that Kerry Max Cook had nothing to do with this. I saw the prosecutors and the police and their witnesses lie after lie after lie. And we had a terrible trial judge who prevented us from introducing exculpatory evidence. The deck was stacked against us, and Kerry goes back to death row. And we have to start all over again.”

Ultimately Cook was freed, after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals described the case as an “illicit manipulation of the evidence [that] permeated the entire investigation of the murder,” resulting in “a conviction based on fraud.”

McCloskey’s exposé of wrongful convictions is intended to highlight what “a cruel, mindless, mean machine the criminal justice system can be” and how difficult it is to persuade the courts they have convicted — and in some cases condemned — an innocent person. “Once some poor innocent soul is singled out, and law enforcement is convinced of his guilt, the train has left the station,” he writes. “There is no turning back. Truth has been left behind.”

Centurion Ministries laid the foundation for the innocent movement in the United States but, unlike the national Innocence Project and many local and regional innocence projects, it does not limit the cases it takes on to those with DNA evidence. The organization has freed 63 men and women in the last 37 years, including Cook and former Texas death-row prisoner Clarence Brandley. As Brandley’s execution date approached, McCloskey persuaded one of the witnesses to come forward and record a videotaped affidavit that recanted his incriminating testimony against Brandley and named the real killers. After the witness told his story on 60 Minutes, other witnesses came forward and the state’s case disintegrated.

During his second year at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1980, McCloskey served as student chaplain at Trenton State Prison in New Jersey. The book recounts his encounter with Jorge de los Santos, a man convicted of murder who proclaimed his innocence. After reading the trial transcripts, McCloskey told de los Santos he believed he might be innocent. “What are you going to do about it?” de los Santos replied. “Are you just going to go back to your nice little safe seminary and pray for me? … I need someone to free me from this hell on earth. Whether you like it or not, you are that man.” McCloskey found a lawyer for Santos, and he was freed in 1983.

After graduating seminary, McCloskey founded Centurion. “I believed this was destiny, that this was why God put me on earth,” he writes. “That everything that came before, all the ups and downs in my life, was in preparation for this work.”

The Death Penalty Information Center has documented 170 cases since 1973 in which wrongfully convicted prisoners have been exonerated of all charges related to the offense that put them on death row. However, DNA evidence played a significant role in only 26 of those exonerations (15%). McCloskey believes that tens of thousands of innocent people are in jail nationwide, and, as book reviewer Hagerty writes, with DNA evidence available so infrequently, “[p]roving a wrongful conviction in the future will require the kind of old-school, painstaking, gutsy work of knocking on doors, poring over documents and persuading people who have no interest in doing so to admit their mistakes.”

“In other words,” Hagerty writes, “we need many more Jim McCloskeys and his counterparts at Centurion, and a return to the past.”

A man of staunch faith, McCloskey once asked Hagerty, “Does God really exist? And if he does, what’s the redeeming value of all this unjust suffering?” Now 78, McCloskey wonders if that’s the first question he’ll ask when he arrives in heaven. “It’s going to be an interesting conversation.”

Sources

Jim McCloskey, with Philip Lerman, When Truth Is All You Have: A Memoir of Faith, Justice, and Freedom for the Wrongly Convicted (Doubleday, 2020); Fresh Air with Terry Gross, An Advocate For The Wrongly Convicted Reflects On Faith, Justice And Innocence, NPR, July 21, 2020; Barbara Hagarty, Taking on the hard­est cas­es — with­out DNA — and set­ting the inno­cent free, Washington Post, August 7, 2020; Book Review: When Truth is All You Have, Kirkus Reviews, July 142020.