Andrew Dys

Second Chester man freed after 40 years in prison for murder he, police say he did not commit

Ray Charles Degraffenreid has been released from prison on parole.

He had been in prison 40 years, convicted of a Chester murder that he, his lawyer, family, and now police, say he did not commit.

Degraffenried, 61, was released late Monday. He was paroled Nov. 29, at a hearing where he told the South Carolina parole board he is innocent, but it took weeks to release him because he has mental deterioration and had to be placed in a care center.

He is the second of two black men convicted in 1977 for the 1973 slaying of Chester laundry employee Claude Killian.

Both men now have been released from prison after four decades of what many say was wrongful incarceration. Degraffenreid and James Robert McClurkin, have said in lawsuits over the past decades that race was a factor in their convictions. The victim was white.

McClurkin, who was released Nov. 17, said Tuesday he is thankful Degraffenreid also has been released.

The parole and release of the two men came after Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood told the South Carolina parole board in late 2016 that a re-opened investigation showed Degraffenreid and McClurkin had alibis.

Melvin “Smokey” Harris, who testified in court against Degraffenreid and McClurkin, later confessed to the murder. Underwood said Harris recanted his testimony. Harris later died in prison.

Underwood also has said evidence his detectives uncovered show that neither Degraffenreid nor McClurkin were in Chester, and could not have slain Killian.

Degraffenreid said at the parole hearing that Harris “knew for a fact I was innocent.”

Documents found by The Herald show Harris also was charged with Killian’s murder but never prosecuted.

Underwood said Tuesday he is thankful Degraffenreid has been released.

Now that both have been freed, lawyers are working seeking court hearings to consider evidence from court files and the renewed investigation. The goal of both men, their families and their lawyers is to have the convictions overturned or potentially vacated.

Degraffenreid confessed in 1977, but claimed at trial in 1977 and for the 40 years since, that police coerced the confession while keeping him in solitary confinement. The confession was so tainted that a 1977 trial ended in a mistrial. A judge refused to allow the confession into evidence.

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