Andrew Dys

‘Closed the door on my life’: Freed Chester man seeks justice in his 1977 conviction

James Robert McClurkin went for a walk Saturday morning at dawn. For the first time in 43 years, he was not in prison.

He had been released Thursday, and Friday met in Columbia with a parole officer.

Over the weekend he walked in a world free to use Facebook, computers, cellphones, and witness the near-end term of America’s first black president. McClurkin said things were totally different when he went to prison in the 1970s.

And even though he’s free, McCurkin still stands convicted of the 1973 killing of Chester car wash clerk Claude Killian.

McClurkin says he didn’t commit the crime. And now, the police, his family and lawyer all agree. Being free is “wonderful,” McCurkin said, but he wants exoneration. He’s awaiting another day in court.

Until then he has to survive. He has to find a job. He learned welding and electrical skills in prison. He left prison with no outside clothes, no money, but he had pride, his courage and his hope.

“I want to be exonerated,” McClurkin said. “Because I did not do it.”

The Mayor of Chester, George Caldwell, has known McClurkin almost all of McCurkin’s life. Caldwell in the 1970s ran a pool room near where the crime happened on Columbia Street. Caldwell remembers the 1977 trials and the alibi and witnesses McClurkin had.

Caldwell also is living proof that Chester is not the same place today that it was in 1973 or 1977. In the 1970s politicians in Chester were white. Caldwell is now the third black mayor of Chester elected since the 1990s.

McClurkin called Caldwell when he got out of prison. The two old friends talked. The men are planning an in-person reunion.

“I can’t imagine what this man has gone through,” Caldwell said Saturday morning, “in prison, so long.”

McClurkin was paroled Oct. 11 after Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood re-opened the case a year ago and told the South Carolina parole board that McCurkin was not at the crime scene. In a 1977 trial, a co-defendant – who later recanted and admitted he lied – blamed McClurkin and Ray Charles Degraffenreid for Killian’s death.

McClurkin said he believes race is the reason he was convicted and stayed in prison so long. He is black and the victim was white.

In 1970s Chester, the judge, the prosecutor, and all the law enforcement officers, except one, were white. All who were involved in the case are now dead. So is the man who testified against McClurkin.

“The police were almost all white and the prosecutor was white and the jury was white,” McClurkin said. “The judge was white. ...There were forces behind the judicial system. They didn’t want two black men to be found not guilty. They railroaded two innocent men. What happened in 1977? I was black and I got life, that’s what happened.”

Linda Hardy, McClurkin’s sister, said: “My brother was convicted of murder and spent 43 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Because he is black. That was Chester County. It is the only explanation.”

Melvin “Smokey” Harris, court records show, was the witness who told jurors in two 1977 trials that he heard McClurkin and Degraffenried talk about the crime, saw them drive to the car wash where Killian works, and heard the shots. Harris had been a boyhood friend of both men and was convicted with them in 1973 of an unrelated crime.

In 1992, when Harris was arrested for an unrelated murder, Harris told police he had lied on the stand in 1977. Harris admitted after the 1992 arrest that he was the killer in 1973. But a judge ruled in 1993 that Harris was not credible because he changed his story so many times. Harris died in prison in 2015.

Police and prosecutors chose Harris -- also charged, but never prosecuted in the Killian case -- as the witness and prosecuted McClurkin and Degraffenreid, according to court records. In statements, which are part of the court records, Harris acknowledged that he asked “what’s in it for me?”

University of South Carolina law professor Kenneth Gaines, a criminal law expert, said there is no question that the racial climate of 1970s Chester County is a reason the men were convicted. Gaines described Harris as a “tainted snitch.” The other evidence was a confession that was so controversial that, in the first trial the judge refused to allow it. No prosecutor, no court in South Carolina in 2016, Gaines said, would prosecute such a weak case.

McClurkin put it this way:

“They closed the door on my life.”

Now, McClurkin, the police who reinvestigated his case and McClurkin’s lawyer, say McClurkin was somewhere else when Killian was slain. However, until there’s a successful exoneration hearing, McClurkin keeps the label of “convicted killer.”

But he’s not in prison.

McCurkin’s lawyer, Jeffrey Bloom, said a new day in court will come. Bloom is investigating the crime and the 1977 trial.

“Our goal is simple, justice for Mr. McClurkin,” Bloom said. “He is innocent. He deserves justice after four decades in prison.”

McClurkin still has ties to Chester. His parents are long dead, but he has three surviving sisters and a brother -- all thrilled that McClurkin is free and can spend the holidays with them.

“I am just happy that he did not die in there,” said Raymond McCurkin, who was 12 years old the last time he saw his brother.

James Robert McClurkin said he’s excited to see people on Thanksgiving, when food is eaten off a real plate, with laughter and joy, instead of off a metal tray in a prison. He said he wants to “enjoy fellowship with my family.”

Then he cried.

“I did not kill Mr. Killian and did not know a thing about it,” McClurkin said. “I was railroaded into that prison. I was sent there by lies... I was not there.”

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