Andrew Dys

S.C. Actual Innocence Justice Center lawyers working to help McClurkin clear his name

James Robert McClurkin maintained for much of his time in prison that he did not kill Claude Killian. Now a South Carolina innocence center has taken on McClurkin’s case to seek his exoneration and have the conviction overturned.

McCurkin, 61, was freed on parole in November. In an exclusive interview that month with The Herald, McClurkin proclaimed his innocence and said what he has written in legal appeals for four decades -- that as a black man in 1977 he did not get a fair trial.

Even though he’s now out on parole, he still carries the record of a convict.

McClurkin is trying to adapt to life outside prison, with no job and no money. It all is happening in the digital age that did not exist when McClurkin was imprisoned in 1973.

He does have a Facebook page. He has 37 Facebook friends and a couple of photos of himself. Other than to say: “I am pleased to have these men as my attorneys,” McClurkin declined to comment further on the status of seeking exoneration.

He has three lawyers who believe in his innocence and are committed to talk -- and act -- for McClurkin. And they are doing it for free.

Lawyers Michael Jeffcoat, Dayne Phillips and Kyle McClain of the South Carolina Actual Innocence Justice Center, based in Columbia, have been assigned by court order to represent McClurkin. Jeffcoat said the group is committed to justice and exoneration for McClurkin and are helping him handle life outside prison.

“We are very selective about the cases that we work on,” Jeffcoat said. “Mr. McClurkin’s case fits squarely with the mission of the Justice Center, which is to ensure that South Carolina’s criminal justice system operates in a fair and honest manner for all of our citizens.”

Legal experts have said McClurkin and Ray Charles Degraffenried (also convicted in connection with the murder), if exonerated after 40 years in prison, should be entitled to money damages from the state of South Carolina for wrongful imprisonment.

But if the charges are not overturned, they would have no case to claim the state convicted innocent men. So now the lawyers, who say both men are innocent and did not get a fair trial, must prove it.

McClurkin and Degraffenreid, both black, were convicted after two trials in 1977 for killing Killian, a white man, at a Chester laundry in August 1973. Yet the case was filled with doubt -- both men had alibis and eyewitnesses putting them in other towns, and a confession by Degraffenreid was allegedly coerced after days in solitary confinement. A judge in the first trial did not allow the confession.

Melvin “Smokey” Harris, a co-defendant who was never prosecuted, testified against both men at both trials. Harris later confessed to the killing of Killian before dying in prison for an unrelated murder committed in 1992.

Despite several lawsuits in the past 40 years by both men alleging that race played a role in their convictions and repeated attempts at parole, their cases were never looked at by police until 2016 when Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood re-opened the investigation. Underwood and one of his detectives told the S.C. parole board in October that police found problems in the case, including that both men had witnesses putting them in other towns at the time of the crime, and both men are likely innocent.

Degraffenreid, 61, also has told the parole board he is innocent and was freed in January. Because of mental problems from his decades in prison, Degraffenreid is in a care facility.

Now lawyers for both men are seeking exonerats.

Josh Kendrick, the lawyer for Degraffenreid, said Degraffenreid is innocent and deserves justice. Kendrick is not part of the South Carolina Actual Innocence Justice Center.

“He is doing much better now that he is out of prison,” Kendrick said.

In a statement on the Innocence Justice Center web site, Dayne Phillips said of the conviction of James McClurkin: “What happened in this case is the epitome of injustice. James was wrongfully imprisoned and deserves nothing shy of complete exoneration. Our organization will zealously advocate to right this wrong and to help James adjust to his new life outside of prison.”

The timetable for the lawyers to try and have the convictions overturned is unclear.

“We are just beginning our work, ” Jeffcoat said.

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