After 40 years in prison, James McClurkin and Ray Degraffenreid were together Monday in the same Chester courtroom where both were sentenced to life in prison for a crime police now say the two men did not commit.
They sat silently for most of the hearing, then shook hands. It was the first court hearing in their attempts for exoneration.
Chester Judge Brian Gibbons ruled that the S.C. Supreme Court is the proper venue for McClurkin and Degraffenreid to be heard as they seek to have their murder convictions overturned.
Lawyers for both men said they will file court documents this week, petitioning the S.C. Supreme Court, so McClurkin and Degraffenreid can have the dark cloud of guilt erased from their records.
“We respect the court’s decision today, but we are unwavering in our belief that both Mr. McClurkin and Mr Degraffenreid are innocent,” said Dayne Phillips of Columbia, one of McClurkin’s lawyers and founder of the S.C. Actual Innocence Center. “We are still seeking exoneration of both of them.”
Josh Kendrick, lawyer for Degraffenreid, said he has no problem arguing the claims of innocence before the state’s highest court.
“These men are innocent,” Kendrick said.
Both lawyers called the convictions “shocking” and a “miscarriage of justice.”
Degraffenreid and McClurkin stand convicted of the 1973 murder of Claude Killian at a laundry.
The Herald reported in 2016 that Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood and one of his detectives re-opened the murder case. Evidence shows that neither Degraffenreid nor McClurkin was in Chester at the time Killian died, Underwood has said.
Lawyers for both men said a confession by Degraffenreid was coerced.
McClurkin and Degraffenreid were released from prison on parole in late 2016. Degraffenreid remains in a state hospital because of mental competency problems.
State prosecutors said, for the first time during Monday’s hearing, that they will oppose throwing out the convictions. They said the men already have had their chances to appeal -- and lost.
Don Zelenka, deputy S.C. Attorney General, said convictions can’t be overturned “based on newspaper articles” - a reference to an investigation by The Herald.
A subsequent article also published by The Herald showed that lawyers for Degraffenreid and McCurkin, at the time of their 1977 trial, were not told that a third man who was a witness against them also had been charged with the murder.
Melvin “Smokey” Harris, another man charged in the crime but never tried or convicted, was a witness for prosecutors in the 1977 trial. Harris confessed in 1992 to killing Killian. Harris died in prison in 2015, after he was convicted of an unrelated 1993 murder.
Neither McClurkin nor Degraffenreid spoke in court Monday. Yet McClurkin and Degraffenreid shook hands during a court recess, and both men vowed to stay the course in seeking to have the convictions overturned.