When 37-year-old James McCloskey began his field education placement at New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison in 1980, little did the Princeton Theological Seminary Master of Divinity student know that his experience there would shape the nature of his unique ministry for the next three decades.
Serving as a student chaplain at the prison two days a week, McCloskey was assigned to the cell block of Jorge De Los Santos, a Newark, New Jersey, native sentenced to life in prison in 1975 for the murder of a Newark used car dealership owner. Over the course of his interactions with De Los Santos, who by that time had already served six years in prison, McCloskey became convinced of the inmates’ claims of innocence. Moved to help him, McCloskey took a one-year leave of absence from the Seminary to investigate De Los Santos’s case. Despite having no background in the criminal justice system, McCloskey, with the help of Hoboken, New Jersey, attorney Paul Casteleiro, was able to prove that the incriminating evidence against De Los Santos—a supposed jailhouse confession—was in reality a story concocted by the star witness and knowingly purported by the prosecuting attorney. De Los Santos was subsequently freed in July 1983.
The exoneration of De Los Santos, coinciding with McCloskey’s growing conviction of the innocence of two more Trenton inmates serving life sentences as well as his own graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary, worked together to confirm McCloskey’s sense of calling—freeing the innocent. Working from his small rented room in a house on Library Place in Princeton, McCloskey founded Centurion Ministries, Inc. (CM), a non-profit corporation whose mission is to “vindicate and free from prison those individuals in the United States and Canada who are factually innocent of the crimes for which they have been unjustly convicted and imprisoned for life or death.” The corporation draws its name from the Roman centurion soldier who stood at the foot of the cross in Luke 23:47and proclaimed, “Surely this one is innocent” (NRSV).
This year marks Centurion Ministries’ thirtieth anniversary. And with 50 exonerations to its history, there is much to celebrate. Yet, there is also much work to be done. With 1,100 to 1,200 petitions coming in per year, Centurion Ministries, with its stalwart group of seven staff members and approximately 15 volunteers, has its work cut out for it. While CM has between twenty and twenty-five cases in various stages of review, investigation, and judicial proceedings at any one time and while it accepts one-to-two new cases per year, most of the men and women whose cases are eventually taken up by Centurion Ministries must wait several years before the corporation has the time or resources available to take on their cause.
Despite the daunting, never-ending nature of the work, however, Centurion Ministries and its founder, James McCloskey, soldier on, devoted to the task of freeing the innocent so that, as Frank O’Connel, a 2012 exoneree, stated at a recent CM reception at Nassau Presbyterian Church, in twenty years he and the other forty-nine men and women who were freed through the efforts of Centurion Ministries can say that they were “one of the first to get out.”