Searching for justice

Published February 1989

Mail on Sunday magazine
February 1989

Grundy is a small colourless town in the bleak backwoods of Virginia down by the border with Tennessee, a poor town where most of the men have “black lung” from working down the coal mine and almost everybody is just about everybody else’s cousin. There was a murder here, seven years ago.

Wanda McCoy, only 19, was raped in the shabby little house where she lived on the outskirts of town. The rapist cut her throat right back to the spine and she was dead long before her husband, Brad, came back from the mine. When the news got around the town, the mood turned ugly and someone hung out a sign that said: “Time for a new hanging tree in Grundy”. Then the police arrested Wanda’s brother-in-law, Roger Coleman, a miner, and charged him with the crime, and Grundy calmed down again.

Seven years later, Roger Coleman sits in a silent cell 500 miles away in Mecklenberg on Virginia’s death row, waiting for the state to electrocute him. Back in Grundy, however, the peace has been broken again by the intrusion of a stranger, poking around and asking a lot of questions about the murder. The stranger says that Coleman is innocent. He says he is going to find out who really killed Wanda. He is not welcome.

The stranger is James McCloskey, aged 46, a legendary figure in the making. Only nine years ago, he was a sterotypical middle class American, working as a management consultant in the posh suburbs of Philadelphia, cruising through an easy life in his air-conditioned Lincoln Continental, looking forward to years of security and comfort.

Then one Monday morning, in the autumn of 1979, he threw it all away. He told his boss he had had enough of the world of commerce and was going to become a priest in the Episcopalian Church. A year later, enrolled as a student priest in a seminary at Princeton, New Jersey, McCloskey’s life took another lurch away from the norm when, as part of his studies, he started ministering to inmates of the state prison in near-by Trenton, home for the area’s toughest and most incorrigible convicts.

The man who changed his life there was a convicted murderer called `Chiefie’ De Los Santos.”I was there in my collar,” McCloskey recalls, “going from cell to cell and, in a very moving and compelling way, this guy Chiefie was proclaiming his innocence. I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I got hold of his trial transcripts and read them. I spent hours talking to him. Three months later, I had come to believe he was innocent. I was moved by his plight. Here was this innocent man standing before me with nothing but bars between us. I felt God had led me to him.”

Armed only with his clerical collar and a determination to get to the truth, McCloskey abandoned his studies at the seminary and started tramping the mean back streets of New Jersey’s ghettoes in search of clues. It took two and a half years but finally both men were changed for ever: Chiefie was declared innocent and freed from prison, and McCloskey was set on a new life as a cross between Father Brown and the Scarlett Pimpernell.

That was the summer of 1983. Since then, he has devoted his life to fighting injustice. From a cramped office in Princeton, and with a shoe string budget, he now runs Centurion Ministeries, named after the Roman centurion who looked up at Christ on the cross and said: “Surely, this one is innocent”. Working only with those who face execution or unusually severe sentences, he has liberated three more men from wrongful convictions, found new evidence for four more who have filed new appeals, and started work on a further twelve. One of them is Roger Coleman, the man Grundy calls a murderer.

In a lay-by on a deserted mountain road, 20 miles west of Grundy, McCloskey stops to straighten his clerical collar. After weeks of sleuthing he believes he is on the track of the man who really raped and murdered Wanda McCoy. He can prove, too, that the state’s main witness is a self-confessed liar who was rewarded for pointing the finger at Coleman. Right now, he is trying to show that at least one juror at the trial was boasting that he would “burn that son of a bitch Coleman” before he had heard a single word of evidence.

McCloskey drives out of the lay-by and stops by a lonely shack, home of one of the juror’s closest friends. The man is outside, naked from the waist up, tipping out garbage. There are mangey dogs and rotting cars in the yard. McCloskey approaches with a smile and a wave. The man ducks inside, pretending he has not seen him. “Whoa,” shouts McCloskey. “Don’t be nervous.” Reluctantly, the man steps outside again and stands scratching the grey hairs on his naked belly while McCloskey goes into a monologue about his work on the case and ends by asking the man about his friend, the juror.

The man wrinkles his face, spits on the ground and finally speaks. “Wayall,” he drawls. “I ain’t sayin’ they oughtta kill the boy. But if he done it, they oughtta take him out in the sun and tie him down and leave him. That’d take care of him.” He has nothing more to say. Back in the car, McCloskey shakes his head: “This is another world. Dear God, this is another planet.”

McCloskey never gives up. He drives on up the mountain road to another shack and another witness. His determination is already beginning to make him famous: Lorimar, the Hollywood production company which gave the world Dallas, is starting work on a two-hour film about his life and hoping to develop a prime-time TV series with McCloskey as the central character. Only once has his determination failed him.

Just over a year ago, in June 1987, he travelled to Louisiana to work on the case of Jimmy Wingo, a petty thief who was due to die in two weeks’ time for murdering an elderly couple in the course of a burglary. It was a tacky story from beginning to end.

It started on Christmas Eve 1982 with Wingo and another petty criminal, Jimmy Glass, escaping from prison: they were passing time on a landing; a lift stopped with its doors open; the guard was busy watching TV; the two men shrugged and walked into the lift, the doors closed and Wingo and Glass were gone.

Later that night, an elderly couple were murdered near-by. Days later, Glass was recaptured and admitted he had killed them. But Jimmy Wingo, who was caught in another state a week later, said he knew nothing about the killing and that he had left Glass to strike out on his own immediately after the escape. The police, however, charged both of them with the crime.

Jimmy Wingo’s trial lasted less than a day. His attorney spent only one hour with Wingo before going into court. Wingo could produce no witnesses to prove that he had been hitchhiking across the state at the time of the crime. He was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair. “He should never have been convicted,” says McCloskey. “Dear God, there was no evidence. Louisiana is a banana republic. They just don’t care.”

With only 14 days till Wingo was due to die, McCloskey started a whirlwind investigation. He traced Wingo’s old girlfriend who had told his trial that “Jimmy said something about how he had knocked off a house.” The girl tearfully confessed to the priestly detective that one of the deputies had threatened to take her children away and, in her fear, she had not only agreed to lie but had also let the deputy rape her.

With seven days to go, McCloskey took a video-tape of the girl’s story to the Lousiana authorities. They said they would consider it. With only four days to go, Wingo’s friend, Jimmy Glass was executed for his part in the crime, to which he had confessed. McCloskey waited all night by his telephone hoping that the condemned man might have used his last words to exonerrate Wingo. But Glass had gone to his death, swaggering and sneering and saying he would rather be going fishing.

With three days to go, McCloskey spent five hours pleading Wingo’s case before the state Board of Pardons. After a two-minute discussion, the board denied his plea. The chairman of the board was subsequently convicted of selling pardons. With only one day to go, McCloskey went to the Governor’s office to beg for a delay; they told him they were impressed by the video of Wingo’s girlfriend and believed she had been abused and promised to get back to him.

With only six hours to go, McCloskey sat with Wingo waiting for news. The hours passed. Wingo smoked and wrote letters. “He was so calm,” says McCloskey. “In a way, he taught me how to die.” Then McCloskey had to leave so they could shave Wingo’s head and get him ready for the death house. There was still no news from the Governor’s office when, at sixteen minutes past midnight, Wingo was electrocuted, still protesting to the end:”I’m an innocent man. The state of Louisiana is murdering an innocent man.”

Recalling the incident, McCloskey’s eyes fill with tears. He pushes his little Japanese hire car up a particularly perilous mountain slope and stops outside a corrugated iron shed. After knocking on the door for several minutes, a huge old woman appears dressed in faded jeans, sawn off at the knees, and a moth-eaten smock. She fixes him with hard eyes as he starts his speech about the murder of Wanda McCoy and his efforts to get to the truth.

Suddenly she interrupts. “I seen it all,” she says. “I seen that car jist blowed up. One of her legs went this way and one went the other. There was meat hanging from the trees. I seen it all.” McCloskey tries to explain that she is thinking of a different local murder, but the huge woman insists, and the interview collapses in confusion as she then offers to help him track down “boot leggers and marri-wanna addicts” over the hill.

McCloskey drives on. The great advantage he has over ordinary private investigators or defence attorneys is the white collar round his neck. “I go into some rough places,” he says, “and I mean rough, dangerous neighbourhoods, the kind of places where people look out the window and see a white man in a suit and think it’s a cop. But with me, they see a priest and that’s different. The collar defends me and it helps me to get a rapport. People talk more. Catholics call me Father. I’m not Catholic. I just look like one. But I let them do it if it helps them to talk.”

His work has made him an outspoken critic of criminal justice. “It is not uncommon for innocent people to be jailed or sentenced to death. People say it might happen once or twice, but they are wrong. I see it all the time in my work. The presumption of guilt – not innocence – is deeply ingrained in the system. I see small-town attorneys who are incompetent and craven. I see judges who are cynical and indifferent. I see these prosecutors who deliberately manufacture evidence and who are themselves immune from prosecution.

“I meet police who have a tremendous amount of racial bias. A nigger is a nigger and a spic is a spic and if they have already been in trouble with the law, they are easy throw-aways. They are a thorn in the flesh of the local police department and if a detective gets any information, however circumstantial, that happens to point to one of them, then they narrow the focus and set out to convict that person.

“In Roger Coleman’s case, they set out to kill him. Nobody wanted to help that man. It was not a fair fight. The case against him was not even circumstantial, just inferential. Weak soup. I strongly believe in his innocence.” It is drizzling as he drives back through Grundy on his way to find another witness.

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