Andrew Dys

Chester man paroled after 39 years for crime he denies. Were wrong men convicted?

James Robert McClurkin, again, at age 61 told the South Carolina parole board Tuesday that he did not kill Claude Killian in Chester during a 1973 robbery of a laundry when he was just 18 years old.

He has told the same story 15 times before to the parole board.

“I’m in the wrong place,” McClurkin told the parole board about prison. “I should be home.”

McClurkin again told the parole board that in the 1970s a black man could not get a fair trial in Chester, or in South Carolina, and that he had spent four decades in prison unjustly after another man — the star witness against him by the name of Melvin “Smokey” Harris — had confessed to the crime.

“That was another place and time for a black man,” McClurkin told the parole board of the 1970s. “I was railroaded.”

Just last year, McClurkin filed a lawsuit in Chester County stating plainly he was innocent: “In South Carolina, in the 1970s, such wasn’t a time for an Afro-American charged with a crime to receive a fair trial.”

A trial in 1977 in South Carolina, McClurkin wrote, of a black man for allegedly taking the life of a caucasian, a white man, was a “slam dunk.”

Another black man convicted in the killing, Ray Charles Degraffenreid, also in prison 39 years, confessed in 1977 but said he only did so after five days in solitary confinement under conditions that were close to torture.

But the lawsuit by McClurkin just sat there. Until Tuesday, at the parole board.

The same parole board heard from the family of Claude Killian who said that he was killed for nothing but a bag of coins.

But this time, McClurkin on the opposite end using a teleconference from prison was not alone in what he claimed to the parole board.

The elected sheriff of Chester County, Alex Underwood, and one of his detectives told the parole board Tuesday that McClurkin and another man convicted of the crime in 1977, Ray Charles DeGgraffenreid, very possibly did not commit the crime they were in prison for.

The police told the board that they had started a new investigation of the case. Underwood and Detective Randy St. Clair told the parole board investigators found not just discrepancies in the original investigation, but neither Degraffenreid nor McClurkin was even in Chester at the time Killian, a white man, was killed.

“They weren’t even in town at the time,” Underwood said of McClurkin and Degraffenreid. “And another man confessed to the crime.”

Both Underwood and St. Clair told the parole board what is almost unheard of from police to parole officials: They did not oppose parole.

The stunning decision came minutes later: James McClurkin, in prison since he was 22 years old, would be set free.

The decision came Tuesday as the Chester County Sheriff’s Office continues with its investigation into the case and two sets of court-appointed lawyers for McClurkin and Degraffenreid work to try to clear their names of a murder that both have said for 39 years they did not commit.

Jeffrey Bloom, a Columbia lawyer appointed by a Chester judge to represent McClurkin and investigate the case, said bluntly Tuesday of McClurkin: “He’s innocent. And he has spent the last 40 years in prison.”

Bloom said he is not blaming anyone, and that maybe Harris, the dead man who admitted to the crime in 1992, was a believable witness in the 1977 trial.

But now, Bloom said, the facts point to McClurkin and Degraffenreid as possibly having spent four decades in prison for a killing they had nothing to do with.

DeGraffenreid was scheduled for a parole hearing Tuesday, but was unable to attend because he is being held at a psychiatric wing of a prison, and was not coherent enough to appear, said Pete O’Boyle, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon services

Denied, but a new investigation

Both McCLurkin and Degraffenreid were tried twice. A first trial was a hung jury – 11 to 1 in favor of not guilty, because statements from both men were kept out. But in a 1977 retrial, where Degraffenreid’s confession was allowed into the trial, both were convicted and sentenced to life for killing Killian.

Both claimed in court lawsuits and parole hearings for the last four decades that they were innocent, but state and federal courts always denied their appeals. Those appeals were denied even though Harris, the eyewitness for the police and prosecutors in the 1977 trial, recanted that testimony in 1992 while in prison for another similar killing.

Court documents show that Degraffenreid was kept in solitary confinement for days, almost without food before he gave his confession that he later said was coerced.

Courts ruled recanted statements from Harris admitting to being the killer did not rise to the level to give either man a new trial.

About a year ago, relatives of McClurkin asked Underwood to look into the case again. Underwood agreed, and assigned St. Clair. The police found no evidence to tie Degraffenried and McClurkin to the crime.

Both Underwood and St. Clair said it is the responsibility and duty of the police to not just put people in jail, but do all they can to make sure those jailed are the right people.

St. Clair said he knows that re-opening the case will “open old wounds” for the Killian family, but the two men convicted deserve to have a full investigation. Both Underwood and St. Clair said the stabbing and shooting “M.O.” the way the crime was committed, was the same as the crime Harris was in prison for concerning another victim.

“Smokey Harris confessed to this murder,” Underwood said plainly.

Yet while Harris was in prison until he died in 2015, Harris’ confessions fell on deaf ears.

“Nobody believed him,” St. Clair said of Harris’ jailhouse confession.

Underwood said that he also has empathy for the crime victims and all families involved, yet wants to make sure justice is served.

“I don’t think anyone would want someone in jail for a crime they did not commit,” Underwood said.

Randy Newman, 6th Circuit solicitor and chief prosecutor for Chester County, said that when Underwood reopened the investigation his office alerted a Chester judge who appointed the lawyers for the defendants. The solicitor’s office took no position on parole Tuesday and had nothing to do with the decision, Newman said.

Prosecutors are now waiting to hear from the investigation parties – the police and the lawyers for McClurkin and Degraffenreid – to determine what actions might be taken from here.

McClurkin admitted to the killing two years ago in his 15th try at freedom in front of the parole board. Why? McClurkin immediately recanted the 2014 admission after he gave it, saying the only reason he admitted the crime was because without contrition, without admitting guilt, he never believed he would ever get a chance at freedom, said O’Boyle the parole board spokesman.

What happens now?

McClurkin, who also was paroled for other alleged crimes, must undergo mental health testing and go through other procedures before he is released on parole in two or three weeks, O’Boyle said.

Degraffenreid, because he was mentally unable to have his hearing Tuesday, will have another hearing as soon as it can be rescheduled and he is capable of appearing before the board, O’Boyle said.

But parole doesn’t change the convictions. Only prosecutors can drop the charges, or a judge can dismiss the charges.

When a court hearing will be scheduled concerning whether or not the wrong men were convicted for the killing of Claude Killian 43 years ago is unclear. Bloom, the lawyer for McClurkin, said there is no timetable.

“Right now, what is important is that very soon Mr. McClurkin will be released from prison,” Bloom said.

McClurkin wrote in court documents that unlike the black teen, George Stinney – executed in 1944 in Alcolu, S.C., for killing two white girls when he did not do it and was only exonerated in 2014 – he doesn’t want to die while incarcerated. Although the “deck is stacked against him” by courts, McClurkin wrote he “would request his flowers while he is still alive to enjoy them.”

In about two weeks, James McClurkin will smell the first flowers outside prison since his first conviction for robbery in 1973 – when he was 18 years old.

And likely, because the facts are the same, Degraffenreid will have his chance soon.

And before long, facts will be presented, a judge will hear them, and a decision will be made by the courts of South Carolina about whether two black men spent 39 years in prison for a crime that the police say happened when they weren’t even in the town where the dead man died.