In a little house on Cemetery Street in Chester, Wednesday morning brought both joy and anger.
Joy, that James Robert McClurkin, 61, who has been in prison since age 18 for crimes he and his family say he did not commit, was paroled Tuesday on his 16th try.
And anger, that it took so long. And still, McClurkin’s name has not been cleared.
The people inside that house said that in the 1970s, when a white man was killed, a black man was one thing: a suspect.
“In Chester in those days, and even these days, they wanted to put our black men in jail,” said Linda Hardy, McClurkin’s sister. “Our mother died when he was in prison. My father died 11 months later, trying to find him a lawyer to save him. They died because their hearts were broke.”
Hardy’s daughter, Wanda White, put it bluntly: “What happened to my uncle – he went away when I was a baby – is pure racism. He never had a life. They stole it.”
Raymond McClurkin, James McClurkin’s younger brother, was 11 years old when his brother went to prison.
“They took his whole life away,” Raymond McClurkin said.
The South Carolina parole board Tuesday paroled McClurkin after Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and one of his detectives re-opened the 1973 murder case of laundry worker Claude Killian. Both McClurkin and Ray Charles Degraffenreid, 61, were convicted in 1977 despite denials of the crime, based on the key testimony of an alleged eyewitness named Melvin “Smokey” Harris.
The case went unsolved from 1973 to 1977, when Harris out of nowhere pointed the finger at McClurkin and Degraffenreid.
Degraffenreid was held in solitary confinement in 1977 for five days until he signed a confession; even a magistrate objected to the police treatment. McClurkin never admitted anything. He was already in prison on a 25-year sentence for an armed robbery – a crime he and his family also claim he didn’t commit – when arrested for Killians’ murder.
Harris claimed four years after the crime that he saw the two run from the crime scene in 1973. A summer 1977 trial without Degraffenreid’s confession ended with a hung jury, but a retrial in November 1977, in which a judge allowed in the controversial confession, ended with both men found guilty and sentenced to life.
But in 1992 after Harris was arrested and convicted of a similar murder, Harris recanted his testimony and claimed he was the culprit. But no judge or court would agree, and McClurkin and Degraffenreid have remained in prison. In 1994, a judge ruled that Harris, facing the death penalty for the second murder, could not be believed after changing his story twice.
Both Degraffenreid and McClurkin were repeatedly denied parole until Underwood told the parole board Tuesday that his office’s investigation shows both men were not in Chester when the crime happened. He echoes that Harris had confessed – even to police – in 1992.
McClurkin will be released in weeks after psychological testing and other requirements for parole. Degraffenreid, who is in a psychiatric part of a prison and was mentally unable to appear Tuesday for a parole hearing, will have a parole hearing in the coming weeks if he is capable.
A Chester judge appointed both men lawyers to review the case because “there may be new evidence” that could clear them. A court hearing on what police and the lawyers find is not scheduled but is imminent in coming weeks.
McClurkin’s sister and niece went to see Underwood and thank him Wednesday. Linda Hardy, McClurkin’s sister, told Underwood: “You are the first one to ever take the time to check into this.”
Underwood reiterated what he said to the parole board and then in an exclusive video interview with The Herald : that it is his duty to seek justice for all people and make sure people who are jailed are the right people.
Hardy said the family remains determined to see McClurkin’s name cleared.
Family members of Degraffenreid declined to comment Wednesday. But McClurkin’s family said they have been telling their story of innocence, of a black man being railroaded, for 40 years. And they are not done talking, either.
“I have been telling anybody who would listen that James Robert was innocent,” Linda Hardy said. “He is going to get parole, and come home to this house, but that doesn’t mean that they are admitting he is innocent. We want that. We won’t stop until they do.”