The man who saves lives on Death Row

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, June 13 1988

Jim McCloskey’s journey to death row began in the suburbs of Philadelphia nine years ago. He was then a successful management consultant, aged 37, with a comfortable home, an air-conditioned Lincoln Continental and a fat monthly pay cheque, and yet he was troubled.

One Monday morning, in the autumn of 1979, he walked into his boss’ office and announced that he had had enough of the business world and was leaving to become a priest in the Congregationalist Church. Nine years later, he has become a cross between Father Brown and the Scarlett Pimpernell, running a unique ministry which is dedicated to freeing innocent convicts, many of whom are facing an unjust execution on death row.

This week, the United States is preparing to conduct its one hundredth execution since the Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976. McCloskey, a compact rounded figure with a balding head, is anguished at the prospect.

“We are a barbaric country,” he said. “We are a vengeful, bloodthirsty, barbaric country. We still have the old frontier mentality – get them before they get you. We are young and immature and we haven’t developed the wisdom that we think we have. We think we are so civilised but we are not.”

Armed only with his white collar and his notebook, McCloskey has spent thousands of hours tramping ghetto streets and dusty backroads across the country in search of clues which might help him liberate wrongly-condemned men. Working from a cluttered office in Princeton, New Jersey, his work as a private detective has freed four men, launched eight others on appeals, and he is now preparing to work on thirteen new cases. He is passionate about all of them, but particularly about Jimmy Wingo.

Wingo was a burglar of no great skill who escaped from jail in Louisiana over Christmas 1982 with a petty hoodlum called Jimmy Glass. It was an easy escape: the guard who was supposed to be minding them was watching television and did not see that a lift had stopped on the landing with its doors open. The two men shrugged and walked in, the doors closed and they were gone.

Later that night, a couple were found shot to death in their home four miles from the jail. When he was recaptured, Glass admitted that he had killed the couple. Jimmy Wingo, who was caught separately, said he knew nothing about it, and that he had parted from Glass hours before the killing, but the police went ahead and prosecuted him.

By the time McCloskey started work on the case last summer, Wingo had been convicted, sentenced to death and now, after failing to win an appeal, had only two weeks before his execution date. McCloskey read the trial transcript. “Talk about circumstantial evidence,” he said. “My Lord! They just didn’t have anything.”

Wingo’s whole trial had lasted less than a day. The jury knew that his fellow escaper, Jimmy Glass, had already been convicted of the murder. Wingo explained that he had been trying to hitch a lift when the murder took place, but he had no witness to support him. His court-appointed lawyer spent less than an hour with him before the trial. “Jimmy was caught between a rock and a hard place,” says McCloskey, “between this shoddy, lazy, callous attorney and this prosecutor who was determined to get him.”

McCloskey tracked down the main witness against Wingo, a former girlfriend, Gwen, who had testified that Wingo had admitted “knocking off a house” to her. Now, talking to McCloskey, Gwen confessed that she had lied: a deputy had arrested her, threatened to charge her and told her she would never see her children again unless she co-operated. In her desperation, she said, she had even allowed the deputy to rape her.

With only a week until the execution date, McCloskey took a video-tape of Gwen’s recantation to the authorities. With six days to go, he tried to see Glass but could not get to him. With four days to go, Glass was executed; McCloskey waited by his telephone all night hoping to hear that Glass had used his last words to exonerate Wingo, but there was nothing.

With three days to go, McCloskey spent five hours before the Board of Pardons, showing his video of Gwen and arguing for Wingo’s life. The Board discussed the case for two minutes and dismissed his pleas. The Board’s chairman has since been convicted of selling pardons. With only a day to go, McCloskey spent hours pleading with the Governor’s office for a stay of execution. They told him that they believed Gwen’s story that she had been raped by one of their deputies, and said they would contact him that evening with their decision.

At six that evening, with only six hours to go, McCloskey visited Wingo in the death house. “It was unreal,” he said. “Every time a door opened, we looked round hoping it was someone to say there was a phone call. I really believed we would get a stay.” No phone call came. “He was so calm. In a way, he taught me how to die.” Then McCloskey had to leave while they shaved Wingo’s head and fitted him with a nappy for when the electric shock sent his stomach into spasm. Sixteen minutes after midnight on June 16 last year, Wingo was electrocuted.

In his final statement, he said:”I’m an innocent man. The state of Louisiana is murdering an innocent man. In the name of Christ, I forgive all those who participated in this wrongful prosecution. I love y’all. God bless you and goodbye.” Re-telling this story in Princeton a few days ago, McCloskey was stopped at this point by tears.

McCloskey works with a shoe-string budget and one assistant under the title Centurion Ministries, named after the Roman centurion in St Luke who looked up at Christ on the cross and said:”Surely this one is innocent.” Each successful case has brought him more donations, but also more appeals from the penitentaries. “People think there might be maybe one or two innocent guys. But they’re wrong. It is not uncommon for innocent people to be convicted and sentenced to death.”

Thirty seven states now execute convicts. The last to die was Arthur Gary Bishop, a self-confessed multiple rapist and killer, who was given a lethal injection early on Friday morning in Utah after abandoning legal appeals. He was the ninety ninth to die since 1976 when the Supreme Court reversed a 1973 ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional. This week two others are scheduled to die, one in Georgia and one in Louisiana.

A further 2,021 other convicts are now waiting on death row, including 21 women and half a dozen who were juveniles at the time of their crimes. If the hangman took a prisoner every day, it would take him more than five years of killing to clear death row.

Opponents of the death penalty are still fighting. They tell the story of John Louis Evans, who took 14 minutes and three massive surges of electricity before he died in the Alabama death house in April 1983 with smoke pouring from the electrodes on his temple and his left leg, and of Steven Morin, who lay strapped to a stretcher in Texas for three quarters of an hour while his executioners fumbled in search of a suitable vein through which to feed him his lethal injection of pentathol.

They cite American crime statistics as evidence that the punishment has had no deterrent effect. They say opinion polls show a shift in public sentiment away from the death penalty. They also argue that the legal and custodial costs of killing a prisoner run to nearly $2 million compared to the $600,000 cost of a life sentence. This week, the US Senate is passing legislation to extend the scope of the death penalty to cover drug-related killings.

McCloskey sits in his office beneath a fading black and white photograph of a lynching, two black bodies swinging from a tree over a crowd of happy white sight-seers. “It is a moral outrage,” he says, “for the state to be killing people.”