As the parole process churns through the glacial South Carolina court system for two black men imprisoned four decades for the murder of a white man - a crime they possibly did not commit - the old Clerk of Court records in the Chester County Courthouse remain.
Those black and white records in the basement, so old and brittle, are the legal and permanent record of what happened in court on the top floor of the courthouse so many times. Times when the late Melvin “Smokey” Harris, an accused and convicted killer, robber, burglar and snitch, also black like the other defendants, may have lied about killing a man in 1973. Harris testified against two others - men who had been lifelong friends - as he likely had done before, so that he could get out of that murder rap.
Then Harris became a trustee at the county jail instead of going to prison because police said he “did so good” in convicting the others.
Then Harris killed another white man in 1992, when it seems he should have been in prison in the first place for the original killing.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The State
The Herald and Chester Clerk of Court employees found this week, in the dusty concrete basement of the Chester County Courthouse, the signed arrest warrant from February 1977 that shows that the snitch from the 1977 trials of Ray Charles Degraffenreid and James Robert McClurkin, was charged with the murder of Claude Killian.
“By murdering Claude Tresvan Killian with a gun during an armed robbery at the Highlander Cleaning Center at 192 Columbia St. in Chester, South Carolina,” states the arrest warrant against Harris, signed by Chester police.
But Harris was never prosecuted.
There is a signed arrest warrant, but no record of a murder conviction Harris that has been located in the Chester records, said Sue Carpenter, Chester Clerk of Court.
The records that are there are clear, though; Harris cut deal.
He saved himself, the records show, and then he killed someone else.
Degraffenreid remains in a psychiatric ward of a prison awaiting a November parole date. Just as James Robert McClurkin remains in prison for a parole granted Oct. 11, looking forward to his first freedom in 43 years.
Both were convicted in 1977 for the 1973 crime, yet claim innocence to this day. As now do Chester police and lawyers and family members. Both McClurkin and Degraffenreid have claimed for four decades that Harris lied. Degraffenreid confessed in what he said was “torture” in a solitary confinement cell in 1977 that was so awful that one magistrate wrote that the only way Degraffenreid would survive was to confess.
But the court records, unlike the snitch who later confessed to the crime but nobody in the court system would believe him, do not change or lie. The dead do not lie, either. Harris admitted to another killing in 1992 of a beloved liquor store clerk named Lindsay Cameron and was finally convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Harris died in prison in 2015. His fingerprints were on the 1992 Cameron case cash register, his footprints found where he stood in Cameron’s blood while stealing money and a 1.5 liter bottle of vodka, records show. Cameron died a brutal death. Harris was arrested the next day. The bloody shoes and fingerprint matched. He still had the vodka bottle.
It’s unclear if the bottle was empty.
To avoid the electric chair, Harris pleaded guilty in 1993. But not before recanting his sworn testimony of the 1977 trial where he was the reason that Degraffenreid and McClurkin were convicted.
Miller Shealy, a former prosecutor, defense lawyer and now professor at the Charleston School of Law, who worked for years to see the 1944 conviction of black teen George Stinney in Alcolu vacated 70 years after Stinney was executed for a crime of killing two white girls - a crime that Stinney did not commit - said that difficult decisions made by prosecutors sometimes end wrong.
“It is awful if a man arrested for a crime of murder turned out to have lied to convict the others, but that’s what happens sometimes, more often than people know,” Shealy said. “I have said many times, that in some cases, ‘If you want to convict the devil, you have to go to hell to get the witnesses.’ Maybe that is what happened here. Maybe the prosecutors picked the wrong man to flip and testify against the others. Especially since there is no doubt that he killed someone else later.”
Maybe the witness in 1977 was really the killer in 1973.
Dennis Bolt, the lawyer in 1992 and 1993 who tried to free both McClurkin and Degraffenreid when Harris first admitted he lied under oath, said reacted to the discovery of the documents by saying: “Amazing. And awful.”
Bolt said more. He was never told during the attempt for a new trial that Harris had been charged in the crime as well.
Both Bolt and Shealy said if any documents were not shared by authorities with McClurkin and Degarffenreid, especially documents that Harris was at one time a co-defendant, a serious misconduct occurred in Chester 40 years ago that for some reason has never been looked at well enough to find it until now.
The courthouse records, Harris’ statements and State Law Enforcement Division records, reveal a pattern:
▪ Smokey Harris was a snitch who told on his friends. He was also, without question, a killer.
▪ Claude Killian, 74, was killed Aug. 5, 1973 in Chester at a car wash/laundry on Columbia Street where Killian worked. The crime shocked Chester, but went unsolved.
▪ In a series of robberies, just days later on Aug. 24, several people were terrorized and televisions and guns and more were stolen. Harris, 16 years old at the time, was arrested first, warrants in the court files show, on Aug. 27, 1973.
▪ McClurkin, 18 at the time, is arrested four days later. Degraffenreid, 18, is arrested after that.
Harris got a juvenile sentence. But there is no South Carolina Department of Corrections record he ever spent prison time although court papers show he was supposed to be sent to prison, potentially to age 21. Degaffenreid received a youthful offender sentence and a prison sentence of five years, documents show. McClurkin was sent to prison for an unrelated incident involving removal of a confederate flag, records show.
In ,1977 the unsolved murder of Claude Killian comes up again.
In his own words, after Harris “pulled some armed robberies,” on Jan. 24, 1977 - that included violence against defenseless victims - Harris is questioned by police about the 1973 Killian killing. Harris denies involvement but then poses the question that haunts this case still:
“What’s in it for me?” Harris asks police.
Harris claimed that police told him “if I would work with the police, they would work with me.”
Harris said he told the now late-Sheriff Bobby Orr: “I told them I was walking on Columbia Street and ran into Ray Charles (Degraffenreid) and James Robert (McClurkin) and I saw them turn into the car wash, and then I heard a shot, and I ran.”
Degraffenreid was brought in from the chain gang where he confronted Harris and said: “Why are you lying on me?”
Degraffenreid was put into solitary and arrested on Jan. 29, 1977 for murder. He gave a confession after five days in solitary, a confession he said immediately afterward was false but given to save his life because he was dying in solitary.
On Feb. 22, 1977, Harris was charged also with the murder of Claude Killian. He is never indicted by a grand jury, court records show, and never convicted of the murder, the records and the official Chester County Clerk of Court log show.
On March 7, 1977, McClurkin - while in prison from the 1973 convictions - is also charged with murder of Claude Killian.
The case marches to trial in just a few weeks in May 1977. Speed records are broken for white police and prosecutors to put black men in prison for crimes against whites in a Southern town still not fully out of segregation.
Both McClurkin and Degraffenreid present alibi witnesses putting them miles away at the time the crime was committed. At least 15 or 20 miles away, court records show.
The confession is not allowed in the trial because the visiting judge named Julius Baggett rules the tainted confession was so rotten he would not allow it within miles of his courtroom.
But Harris testified in the May 1977 trial against both other men, while even Harris admits he is getting preferential treatment in the jail. A mistrial is declared after the jury is deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal of both Degraffenreid and McClurkin.
Prosecutors and police bring the case back for retrial in November 1977, again using greased skids of justice that defy the laws of velocity and gravity.
The judge is Joseph Moss from York, a former South Carolina Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who later would be caught using racial epithets against blacks from the bench and yet would still have York’s courthouse named after him. Moss allowed in the Degraffereid confession.
Both McClurkin and Degraffenreid again presented alibi witnesses, and this time Degraffenreid testifies to being tortured to give a confession.
Harris, , already a multiple felon who was allowed to do his time as a preferred prisoner, is again the star witness for prosecutors. Here is what Harris later said to police about that November trial in a written statement:
“The week before court lawyer Hair (the prosecutor at the time was Billy Hare - who later died) came and talked to me,” Harris wrote. “He said for me to get on the stand and testify against Ray Charles and James Robert, and if they were convicted, I would get a lighter sentence.”
The jury in November 1977 came back in 41 minutes. Both McClurkin and Dgaffenreid are found guilty and Moss sentenced each to life in prison.
The arrest warrant for Harris for the murder of Claude Killian was found this week in the basement of the courthouse, gathering dust.
“Both of them was found guilty, both was given life at the second trial, and all I got was two 10-year sentences to run concurrent,” Harris later said to police of that day when he testified but apparently lied under oath to save himself.
But Harris apparently never went to prison immediately despite getting 10 years. Harris himself stated to police later that he was sent to Columbia to prison but “brought right back.”
Sheriff Orr said, ‘Harris, you did such a good job I am going to make you a full trustee,” Harris told police later on.
Harris then claimed he escaped - but there is no court record in Chester showing an arrest or conviction for escape. South Carolina Department of Corrections Records show Harris finally was sent to prison in December 1977 on the 10-year sentence for the armed robberies, then later released.
In 1979 the South Carolina Supreme Court, without hearing or arguments, upheld the convictions.
In 1987 Harris was arrested and convicted in early 1988 for stealing 17 cartons of cigarettes, but was given just a 5-year sentence despite his criminal record of violent crimes. Harris was released from prison, again, on Sept. 26, 1990.
He stayed busy.
March 1992, Lindsay Cameron was found shot and beaten to death at a liquor store in Chester. Harris was caught the next day and this time there was no deal in place. Prosecutors immediately made plans to seek the death penalty. Harris’s lawyers started to negotiate a plea deal to life without parole if prosecutors took the electric chair off the table for everybody’s favorite snitch, Smokey Harris.
But first, Harris decided he wants to come clean. On Oct. 11, 1992 - 19 years to the day after he and McClurkin and Degraffenreid were first convicted for the first set of 1973 robberies when Harris appeared to first start snitching - Harris asked to speak to the police.
Harris then gave a signed statement stating he lied about McClurkin and Degraffenreid while under oath during the 1977 trial.
“I want to go on record and say that as far as I know, McClurkin and Degraffenreid had nothing to do with the killing of Mr.Killian,” Harris wrote as part of a 3-page statement that also included the written statements about the deal he got in exchange for testifying in 1977, and the favorable treatment by police and prosecutors.
Bolt, the appeals lawyer, was sent the statement and immediately filed court documents asking for a new trial for both McClurkin and Degraffenreid. Before a hearing could be held, Bolt took a statement from Harris, court documents show, where Harris not only admitted he lied in 1977 at the trial, but Harris admitted that he alone was the killer.
Bolt was not told by anyone, if anyone even knew, that Harris had once been arrested for the same crime.
But a judge named Don Rushing at a 1993 hearing in Chester ruled that Harris, the snitch used to put the men in prison, whose word was required for convictions of others, was no longer believable.
Harris in May 1993 pleaded guilty to the murder of Cameron the year before to escape the electric chair. He went to prison and died in November 2015.
But McClurkin and Degraffenreid did not die. Both men went to parole hearings and denied involvement repeatedly and were rejected 15 times. One time in 2014 McClurkin said to the parole board he was guilty because he believed that he would die in prison without admitting to something he didn’t do, but he recanted that immediately.
Both men filed lawsuits that were dismissed, claiming racism and racial prejudice . Degraffenried’s lawyer in one suit even showed how more whites were used for jurors during that trial than any other term.
Both claimed, for 39 years, that they did not kill Claude Killian, but white Chester decided they were guilty.
All that changed last week.
Chester Sheriff Alex Underwood agreed a year ago at the behest of McClurkin’s family to re-open the case. Deputies found “discrepancies” the size of city buses. Discrepancies included the alibis of Degraffenreid and McClurkin, and Harris’s confession and other crimes. And how the money stolen was recovered in woods nearby in 1973 when only Harris was on foot..
A judge has appointed lawyers for both men for possible “new” evidence that could exonerate them. Jeffrey Bloom,. McClurkin’s attorney, and Joshua Kendrick, Degraffenreid’s attorney, each said this week that the men are described best by one word: “Innocent.”
McClurkin was paroled on Oct. 11 when Underwood and his detective told the board that both men were likely innocent and had alibis and that the now dead Harris confessed and other evidence.
McClurkin will be released in weeks after testing and counseling for life outside prison. Degraffenreid, who could not appear because of severe mental deterioration , has another parole hearing scheduled for November.
No court dates are yet set for prosecutors and a judge to determine if the convictions will be overturned or vacated.
Linda Hardy, sister of McClurkin who praises the current police for looking into the case, had a question about Melvin “Smokey” Harris and the police and prosecutors, all dead, who put away her brother in prison for 43 years:
“Those people from the police, the prosecutors, they wanted the jury to believe Smokey Harris. Smokey Harris is why my brother went to prison. But after that until now, they decided that Smokey Harris could not be believed. Well which is it? How can they keep my brother in jail because of what Smokey Harris testified to, but after that say they say Smokey Harris is a liar?”
Good question. Many answers died with the people involved. Including Lindsay Cameron, who died in 1992 when Smokey Harris killed him after police and prosecutors kept Harris out of jail for another murder.