James Robert McClurkin took a deep breath. He sat in a Chrysler 300 that was not even an idea when he went in the prison behind him 43 years ago. His skinny chest was covered by a prison t-shirt washed so many times you could almost see through it. He also wore gray and threadbare prison sweatpants, and jail clogs on his feet.
“I am free,” whispered James Robert McClurkin. “The air. It smells different. Like freedom.”
He looked in the car mirror and behind him saw razor wire made to cut off the hands of any convict who tried to climb it. He was on the outside.
Freedom came at 10:43 a.m., 43 years and one month after he went inside Broad River prison. For 39 of those years, he was there for a murder that he, and now police and lawyers, say he did not commit.
McClurkin, in prison since age 18 for a killing in 1973 and another crime in 1973, spoke in measured, careful words. He’s now 61. He spoke eloquently -- like a professor, or a college dean.
He did not shout. He did not scream. He smiled shyly. And he cried.
“It feels...it feels great. I’m hungry. I want to eat.”
McClurkin was asked what he wanted to eat first.
“Everything,” he said. “I want it all.”
But what McClurkin wants most is justice.
A tear that weighed four decades slid down the cheek of McClurkin’s left eye. He had not seen the other side of the wire since Nixon was president. He had never used a cellphone. He never saw Michael Jordan play basketball. He never had seen a black President named Obama.
Chester County, and South Carolina, took the word of a criminal co-conspirator who saved himself and convicted McClurkin of a murder that many -- now including police -- say he did not do.
When Claude Killian, 74 years old and respected in Chester, was brutally robbed and shot in August 1973 at a Chester car wash, the case went unsolved for four years. But McClurkin and Ray Charles Degraffenreid were convicted in 1977, on the word of a co-defendant named Melvin “Smokey” Harris.
And using a confession so tainted that one judge refused to allow jurors to hear it.
James Robert McClurkin was supposed to die in prison, a killer. The system, the world, said he was an animal. He would have died in jail too, except one law enforcement officer refused to let it happen.
On Oct. 11, Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, the first ever black sheriff in Chester County, told the South Carolina parole board, that McClurkin was innocent. That what cops and prosecutors did in 1977 was wrong. McClurkin was paroled Oct. 11, after Underwood’s testimony, but it took five weeks for the South Carolina prison and parole system to finish with McCurkin and free him.
Ivory Moultrie-Manning drove her Chrysler 300, carrying McClurkin through the last guard gate to freedom. Moultrie-Manning has been his girlfriend of two decades.
“Hallelujah,” said Moutrie-Manning. “It is overwhelming. He is free.”
McClurkin smoked a cigarette, his first in 43 years, and held Ms. Moultrie-Manning’s hand. He held tight to both.
Not the end
“I have been trying for 39 years for this conviction, for a killing that I did not do, to try and get someone, anybody, to believe me,” McClurkin said. “I am out now, paroled. I am a free man. But that is not the end. I am still convicted. I want to be exonerated. I did not kill Claude Killian.”
McClurkin said he has tried to keep race out of why he has been in prison for so long, but cannot. He is black and the victim was white.
“The police were almost all white and the prosecutor was white and the jury was white,” McClurkin said. “The judge was white. There was corruption and collusion in that time. 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.”
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 in a trial where the only evidence was a . 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.”
McClurkin then wiped another tear as he spoke of his friend, Ray Charles Degraffenreid, convicted of the same crime and still in prison. Except Degraffenreid is in a prison mental wing, after a breakdown after decades of confinement for a crime that Degraffenreid also claims he did not do.
“Ray Charles had witnesses - he was helping somebody fix a car miles away out by Bascomville in the country in Chester County, when Mr. Killian was killed in 1973, McClurkin said. “I was in Great Falls with two other people - one of them was Melvin Harris’s uncle - and when I got back to Chester we drove past the crime scene. They investigated us and cleared us. But then Melvin Harris lied and said we did it. And we been in prison ever since. And Ray Charles - he broke down because of it. He deserves to get out of prison, too. We both are innocent.”
How McClurkin was imprisoned
McClurkin, Degraffenreid and Harris, three friends since childhood, were all convicted in late 1973 of an armed robbery that happened two weeks after Killian was killed at the car wash. All pleaded guilty.
“We had played hooky from school, we drank, we smoked marijuana, and we did something stupid,” McClurkin said Thursday just minutes after he got out of prison about the robbery not connected to the murder.
He said that that incident made him a target for police in Chester. McClurkin accepts responsibility for that 1973 robbery but not the killing of Killian two weeks before in 1973.
“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. The police, in Chester, the state investigators, they looked at us in 1973. I was not there.”
More, Melvin “Smokey” Harris, also was charged with the murder but never prosecuted. And he was charged with a string of other crimes. He became the star witness against his friends. Harris later admitted that he lied before he died in prison for another 1992 murder.
For all the years since McClurkin and his family said he was innocent. Many appeals and lawsuits have been filed. All failed.
Harris, the snitch, was in and out of jail until 1992 when he killed a man named Cameron in a liquor store robbery shooting. Harris was going to get the electric chair if convicted. He pleaded guilty to get life instead of the death penalty, but told police and prosecutors that he lied in 1977 at the trial, and only did so to save himself.
Then Harris admitted to McClurkin’s lawyer at the time in 1992 that he was the one who killed Killian in 1973.
But a judge ruled that Harris was not believable, and McClurkin and Degraffenreid stayed in prison.
“I became a welder, and I was an electrician,” McClurkin said of his prison jobs. “I didn’t waste my time incarcerated. I fought my case and I worked.”
“And I hoped and I prayed.”
Until Underwood, the sheriff, agreed in 2015 at the request of McClurkin’s family to re-open the case. A detective investigated and found what police say are “huge discrepancies in the evidence.”
A judge appointed lawyers for both McClurkin and Degraffenreid for potential new evidence that could clear them.
“We found that these two men McClurkin and Degraffenreid were not there at the time of the crime,” Underwood said. “They had alibis and witnesses that had them in other places.”
When McClurkin was up for parole Oct,. 11, Underwood told the parole board that investigators found both men had witnesses and alibis and other evidence showed they were not at the crime scene. He also told the board that Harris confessed to being the killer.
“Our duty is to put the right people in prison for crimes, and it is our duty to not put the wrong people in prison,” Underwood said.
Since being given parole Oct. 11, McClurkin had to go through mental and other testing to make sure he was ready to be released into a world that is far different than the one he left in 1973. He passed all tests, said his lawyer, Jeffrey Bloom.
“James Robert McCurkin is a man who has spent the past 43 years of his life in prison,” Bloom said. “Thirty-nine of those years were for a murder he did not commit. He did not do it. He is innocent. There is no doubt.”
Bloom said he is now compiling documents, interviewing witnesses, and investigating the 1973 Killian crime and 1977 trials to present to a judge evidence that McClurkin should not just have been paroled and freed, but exonerated.
“He deserves to have his name cleared,” Bloom said. “Forty-three years in prison. Forty-three.”
McClurkin has to meet with his parole officer Friday. He is free, but he is still a convicted killer in the eyes of South Carolina and its courts and prison and parole system. McClurkin has to report on time and conform to all requirements, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services.
Bloom, McClurkin’s lawyer, said he has advised James Robert to do all that is required.
“He is free now on parole but that comes with responsibilities that he must handle,” Bloom said. “And he can. I believe that he will. Mr. McClurkin is a man who has waited all these years for this day. He is ready.”