By Jim McCloskey, with Philip Lerman. Doubleday, 2020. 320 pages. $26.95/hardcover; $17/paperback (available June 1); $13.99/eBook.
Jim McCloskey was an ordinary guy, growing up near Philadelphia, Pa., and finding his way into adulthood as best he could, like most people, except he had a particular sensitivity to fairness and a sympathy for those who had been wronged. He served in the U.S. Navy, patrolling rivers in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, and spent 12 years in international consulting.
In his 30s, he decided to ditch the business world and try out a path leading into ministry, and he eventually earned a master’s of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. As part of his training, he asked to be assigned to prison visits, a mission which would change his life—and save the lives of many prisoners.
As he chatted with prisoners, McCloskey heard some extraordinary stories. It was the prisoners who explained their innocence and offered enough details to prove their claims whom McCloskey decided to help.
In When Truth Is All You Have, McCloskey follows the clues left behind by murder victims, con artists, dissembling inmates, duplicitous friends, and rationalizing police and lawyers. While it’s tough to read the details of some of the crimes, the details of uncovering the serpentine trail to the truth are fascinating and illuminating. McCloskey’s skill as a storyteller walks us through the facts of each stage with frank and empathetic attention, making us feel as if we are there with him and privy to his own confusions, questions, and analysis.
As Barbara Bradley Hagerty noted in The Washington Post, each story McCloskey recounts offers instruction in the ways of injustice:
Jailhouse informants who have incentive to lie for the prosecution often play starring roles at trial. Witnesses are intimidated into giving false testimony. Innocent people confess after hours of questioning. Forensic evidence other than DNA—ballistics, bite marks, hair analysis—is often about as accurate as flipping a coin. Prosecutors hide evidence and put lying witnesses on the stand. Police develop tunnel vision, become obsessed with one suspect and ignore exculpatory evidence.
As McCloskey writes: “Once some poor innocent soul is singled out, and law enforcement is convinced of his guilt, the train has left the station; there is no turning back. Truth has been left behind.”
McCloskey’s first successes with getting prisoners off death row or released altogether led to his creation in 1983 of Centurion Ministries (now called Centurion), a group of forensic experts, lawyers, and volunteers, devoted to overturning wrongful convictions. Over the next decades they would free 63 innocent prisoners who had been sentenced to life or who were rotting away on death row. Thus, McCloskey has been dubbed “the godfather of the innocence movement.”
When Truth Is All You Have is a sobering education in the problems of the justice system and the costs it inflicts on individuals. In particular, it reveals with unsettling evidence the role of police and White blindness to social justice, instructive for any discussion of Black Lives Matter. More abstractly, it is a troubling exploration of how easily truth becomes abused, ignored, and rewritten: a warning resonant for our times.
Today McCloskey, in his late 70s, is retired from active oversight of Centurion, though he continues to serve on the board and pursue cases. His coauthor, Philip Lerman, is a nonfiction writer, the former national editor of USA Today, and former co-producer of America’s Most Wanted.
Beth Taylor is a member of Westerly (R.I.) Meeting and a distinguished senior lecturer in the English Department at Brown University.