File video: Will South Carolina right an apparent wrongful conviction?
Almost 40 years after he was convicted for a murder he and now police say he did not commit, Ray Charles Degraffenreid will find out Tuesday if he will be paroled.
Just like Robert James McClurkin was paroled last month, and freed from prison Nov. 17, for the killing of Claude Killian. Both men have since arrest ion 1977 claimed they were wrongly arrested and convicted.
Both Degraffenreid and McClurkin had alibis and witnesses that put them miles from the crime scene, police and their lawyers now say. More, police say a third man later confessed to the crime.
Degraffenreid has been at a prison mental facility for months, and was both physically and mentally unable to appear Oct. 11 at his scheduled parole hearing. That same day, McClurkin was paroled and on Nov. 17 McClurkin was released from prison.
In that Oct. 11 hearing Underwood and his detective told the parole board that police did not oppose parole because McClurkin was not involved in the crime. Police are expected to say the same thing Tuesday in front of the parole board on behalf of Degraffenreid.
Yet the decision Tuesday could come without Degraffenreid knowing all that is happening around him, as his lawyer - who says Degraffenreid is innocent of the 1973 murder of Claude Killian - has had mental deterioration while in prison since 1977.
“My hope is that we can move Mr. Degraffenreid to a facility outside of the prison system where he can receive treatment and care,” said Joshua Kendrick, the lawyer appointed to represent Degraffenreid after a judge was told that police had new and potentially exculpatory evidence in the case. “That’s first - get him out. Then we can work on getting him exonerated.”
Killian, 74, a clerk at a car wash and laundry in Chester, was robbed and shot to death in August 1973. The case went unsolved until 1977 when a third man charged in the crime but never prosecuted, Melvin “Smokey” Harris, told police that he saw Degraffenreid and McClurkin planning the crime and heard the shots.
Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood re-opened the case last year. Underwood’s detective found “discrepancies” in the investigation that include: Both men had alibis and witnesses, Harris’ confession and being the only one on foot, and other problems with the investigation. Deputies now say that neither Degraffenreid nor McClurkin committed the murder.
The hearing is set for 9 a.m Tuesday, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. Inmates generally appear via teleconference from prison, while the parole board hears testimony from others in person. It is unclear if Degraffenreid will appear or Kendrick, the lawyer, will appear on his behalf.
Degraffenreid was arrested in late January 1977 after Harris, the witness against him, fingered both him and McClurkin, records show. Degraffenreid was held in solitary confinement for days.
Now 61, Degraffenreid confessed to the crime after his arrest in 1973. However, he claimed almost immediately and ever since that the confession was coerced from torture in solitary confinement. In 1977 he was convicted at a second trial where the confession was allowed, after in a first trial in 1977 ended in a hung jury. In that first 1977 trial a different judge refused to allow the confession, saying it was involuntary.
In that second 1977 trial Degraffenreid not only testified that he was innocent, he said, “I was treated like an animal” concerning his five days in solitary.
Harris was given a preferential plea deal to testify against Degraffenreid and McClurkin after he faced charges for several other 1973 and 1977 crimes that were similar to the Killian robbery that ended with a killing, records show.
Harris later recanted his testimony after he was charged in another murder in 1992. Harris in 1992 said he lied about the other two men in 1977 at trial and never saw them that day in 1973. Harris then confessed to killing Killian but no one in the court system accepted the confession, claiming he was not credible after changing his story several times. Harris died in prison in 2015.
Degraffenreid has denied the crime in 15 previous parole hearings and filed several lawsuits alleging that there were racial reasons - he is black and the victim white - for the conviction. Those lawsuits have always failed.
But that was before police went on record with the parole board saying that the men did not commit the crime.
Kendrick, the lawyer, said that getting the courts to re-examine the conviction is next.
“Mr. Degraffenreid is innocent of this crime and we want his name cleared,” Kendrick said.