In prison for 40 years, Ray Charles Degraffenreid of Chester endured what his lawyer called “the nightmare of losing his entire life for a crime he did not commit.”
A 1973 murder, just a few doors down Columbia Street from Degraffenreid’s home in Chester.
More, the courts of Chester County and South Carolina “turned their back” on Degraffenreid, 62, who now has severe schizophrenia , turning his life into an “unfair” malaise of “shocking tragic abandonment.”
Now, Degraffenreid’s lawyers want that conviction tossed out.
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In court documents sent to Chester’s courts this week, Degraffenreid’s lawyer Joshua Kendrick asked that a judge hold hearings and vacate the 1977 conviction of Degraffenreid for the 1973 killing of Chester laundry clerk Claude Killian. Lawyers for James McClurkin, also convicted in the crime and jailed 40 years, filed similar papers last week after Chester Sheriff Alex Underwood re-opened the case last year and found that the men were innocent.
Degraffenreid was freed on parole in January after Underwood testified to the South Carolina parole board that the key witness who testified against both men, a convicted killer named Melvin “Smokey” Harris who died in prison in 2015, confessed to the crime and evidence points to Harris as the killer. Harris was charged with murder in the case but never prosecuted, and received a deal on several other similar armed robberies and crimes from the same time period in exchange for his testimony at two 1977 trials.
The first trial ended in a hung jury. The second ended with conviction.
“Four decades in prison on this evidence should shock not only an jurist, but society at large,” said Kendrick, Degraffenreid’s lawyer. “The courts turned their back on these two innocent men.”
Harris recanted his 1977 trial testimony and confessed to the 1973 killing of Killian after being charged with a similar murder in 1992 - but no judge would believe him.
McClurkin always denied involvement. Degraffenreid gave a confession in 1977, but his lawyers and even a federal magistrate through four decades of appeals have said the confession was coerced after Degraffenreied was kept in solitary confinement for days. The first 1977 trial judge refused to allow the confession in the trial, but the second trial judge in 1977 allowed it and both men were convicted.
Degraffenreid does not get to live a free life even with parole. He is staying at a Columbia adult care institution where he receives care for his mental condition, said Kendrick his lawyer. McClurkin is struggling in his freedom, so poor and without any job training or skills that he relies on Food Stamps.
No hearing date has been set. Lawyers for both men are hopeful that this summer a judge will take testimony from police who re-opened the case, then throw the convictions out.
But until then, both Degraffenreid and McClurkin are considered convicted killers who are parolees no different than any other ex-cons.
Except in this case, the police are on the record saying the men who served 40 years in prison didn’t do it.