Sam Spade he's not. And unlike G. K. Chesterton's. Father Brown or television's Murphy, James McClosky has never been or but the seminarian detective has earned startling reputation freeing falsely convicted prisoners he has just signed a movie deal for his life story. Now McCloakey is seeking new testimony to save 'Roger Keith Coleman from Virginia's electric chair and, last week, he scored another victory. Thanks largely to McCloskey's efforts, Judge Florence-Marie Cooper of the County Superior Clarence Chance and Benny Powell free after serving 17 years in prison on a bogus murder charge. She also apologized: "Nothing can return to you the years irretrievably lost"
McClosky, 49, specializes in lost evidence. Chance and Powell are the 1lth and 12th in a string of convicted rapists and murderers he has helped set free since 1983. He has no legal training ,or subpoena powers-in fact, he was a Philadelphia businessman who found his life empty and entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 1979. He came to his real vocation while serving as a student chaplain at Trenton State Prison. There he met convicted murderer George (Chiefie) De Los Santos and was so convinced of his innocence that he spent three years investigating the case and finally discredited the prosecution's chief witness. After that, McCloskey decided to found Centurion Ministries, Inc., a nonprofit group dedicated to freeing other falsely convicted prisoners.
Most of McCloske's cases have turned on uncovering perjury, bogus jailhouse confessions or overlooked evidence. In 1986, he won national attention-including a NEWSWEEK profile-by helping free convicted rapist Nathaniel Walker. McCloskey located an exonerating semen sample, forgotten in the back of a police station for 12 years. In 1989, he helped overturn the conviction of Joyce Ann Brown in the murder of a Dallas fur-store owner after locating another woman who bore a startling resemblance to her. Clarence Brandley, a black high-school janitor, was just days away from execution in the rape and murder of a 16-year-old student when McCloskey persuaded a witness to admit he'd seen two white janitors drag the girl away. He hasn't won them all: Jim Wingo was executed in Louisiana before McCloskey could prove his innocence.
With a donated budget of $150,000 and only two staffers in his basement office in Princeton, McCloskey rejects most requests for help, Clarence Chance's letter caught his eye because Chance insisted he was in jail at 7 p.m. on Dec. 12, 1973, when an off duty sheriffs deputy was gunned down at a Los Angeles gas station. McCloskey wasn't able to prove that-police records show Chance was processed out at 4:53 p.m. that day but no one can say when he actually left the facility. Instead, McCloskey went to work on the witnesses and got three young women to admit that police had coerced them into identifying Chance and Powell. Eventually even the L.A. district attorney's office determined that the police had withheld evidence discrediting a jailhouse informant who claimed that Powell had confessed. Beleaguered LAPD Chief Daryl Gates last week insisted Powell and Chance were guilty, but the court disagreed. "Jim McCloskey is a living hero," says Chance's attorney Barry Tarlow. "He's as close to a saint as any human being I've ever met."
McCloskey says he is facing one of his toughest battles yet in trying to exonerate Roger Coleman. He says he has leads; he hopes to locate witnesses and persuade them to come forward. "I think somehow, somewhere, a miracle is going to occur," McCloskey says. After all, it's happened before.