By Sandra Benedict
Photography by Diane Bladecki
It is hard to imagine a more horrifying, dehumanizing and painful experience than to be imprisoned for a crime you did not commit. Yet we know wrongful convictions happen at an alarming rate. Centurion, a Princeton, New Jersey-based nonprofit established in 1983, has worked to free 55 innocent individuals from a life or death sentence.
Centurion’s founder, Jim McCloskey, has known for some time what science is now proving: wrongful convictions happen more often than we realize and for reasons most of us cannot envision. Centurion takes on the challenges of working to free wrongly convicted people who would likely die in prison without the organization’s advocacy.
As a student at Princeton (NJ) Theological Seminary in 1980, Jim chose to perform his fieldwork at Trenton State Prison in New Jersey’s capital. It was there that he met Jorge “Chiefy” De Los Santos. Chiefy, who was serving a life sentence for murder, adamantly and incessantly proclaimed his innocence, so much so that Jim felt compelled to review the facts of the case. Jim soon concluded that Chiefy was innocent.
Believing there was an injustice, Jim went to work fighting for Chiefy’s freedom. Using his own money, he traveled to the scene of the crime and obtained a recantation from the key witness who lied at trial. Jim hired a lawyer who is to this day the lawyer on many of Centurion’s cases and serves as Centurion’s Legal Director. Chiefy was exonerated in 1983 and Centurion, the first organization to work on behalf of the wrongly convicted, was born.
For years Centurion was the only organization to work on behalf of the innocent in prison. Then the Innocence Project movement started, with a concentration on DNA cases. Today most organizations do some field investigations as Centurion does, but they generally stick to their geographic areas, whereas Centurion takes on cases all over the US and Canada.
Thanks to advances in DNA science, it is now well-documented that many individuals ultimately exonerated through DNA, 400 plus and counting, were convicted through police and prosecutorial misconduct, faulty identifications, junk science, coerced testimony or simply poor lawyering. The ugly reality, however, is that for every wrongful conviction overturned by DNA, there are thousands of unjust convictions that stand because DNA evidence is unavailable.
The process of uncovering new evidence and presenting it in court can be lengthy and costly. But it’s worth every penny to help reunite families and undo systemic breakdowns in justice, one case at a time.
Every Tuesday for 27 years, Mia Schand visited her husband Mark at Bay State Correctional Facility in Norfolk, Massachusetts. Pregnant with their third child when Mark was wrongly convicted of murder in 1987, Mia didn’t miss a Tuesday, driving two hours from Connecticut to see him. She almost always had Mark’s three young sons in tow.
There was no DNA available to prove Mark’s innocence, yet he was no less innocent. A thorough screening of his case left Centurion investigators and attorneys with no doubt that he had been wrongfully convicted. They went to work and ultimately proved Mark was falsely implicated in the crime by six career criminals, all of whom received reduced prison sentences in exchange for erroneous testimony. Official misconduct also contributed to Mark’s wrongful conviction. Police presented witnesses with suggestive lineups and the prosecution hid evidence indicating that the lineups were corrupt.
Mia Schand and her children would likely still be taking their Tuesday drives to visit Mark if Centurion limited its work to DNA-only cases. When Mark was freed in October 2013, Mia and their three sons, now grown men, were waiting outside the prison doors to embrace him.
Richard Miles, another Centurion exoneree, can relate to Mark’s predicament.
A review of Richard’s 1994 murder case by Centurion investigators revealed that the Dallas (TX) Police Department hadn’t informed Richard’s defense lawyer that another man had confessed to the crime. Based on this revelation, and the fact that the sole eye-witness had lied at trial, Richard was exonerated after 15 years of wrongful imprisonment. Unfortunately, in our criminal justice system, such official misconduct is all too common and rarely, if ever, punished. Most of us would find it hard to believe that this sort of police misconduct could take place.
Shortly upon regaining his freedom Richard founded his own nonprofit, Miles of Freedom, which provides employment and educational resources for people on parole.
These are but a couple of success stories. There is so much more work to be done. Many innocent men and women continue to languish in prison, sometimes for decades, because of the time it takes to thoroughly re-investigate a case and navigate a system lacking in accountability, one in which prosecutors fight tooth and nail to preserve convictions and the courts overlook or ignore compelling evidence.
Centurion is currently working to free 21 individuals around the United States. There are 10 more on the waiting list.
While a disproportionate number of Centurion’s clients are economically disadvantaged and from African-American communities, Centurion Executive Director Kate Germond cautions, “When one person’s civil liberties are violated, all of our civil liberties are at risk. The arbitrary and adversarial nature of the criminal justice system renders us all vulnerable.”
Regardless of race, socioeconomic status or education, Centurion will continue to give voice to those silenced by an often unjust process.
Sandra Benedict is the Director of Development for Centurion. Centurion was the first organization in the world dedicated to the vindication of the wrongly convicted.