South Carolina

The sheriff said he didn’t do it and he was released from prison but stigma impossible to shake.

James McClurkin is broke, but not broken.

He is unemployed and, to many, unemployable. He was sentenced to prison 43 years ago. In November 2016 he was released on parole.

McClurkin’s lawyers describe it as “physical, emotional, and mental torture” when they reference McClurkin’s conviction and 40-plus years of incarceration for a 1973 Chester murder. They filed a lawsuit last week asking that the conviction be vacated.

Meanwhile, McClurkin, 62, doesn’t have a permanent home. He gets food stamps, and twice a month has to report to a parole agent. He has physical problems and requires mental health treatment. He catches the bus around Columbia and daily walks miles to seek odd jobs and get to appointments -- especially the parole appointments that keep him from going back into the prison where he stayed from 1973 until his parole.

“I got nothin.’ They let me out with nothin’ ” McClurkin said recently. “They had me in for so long for something I did not do, for a crime I did not commit. And now I get out and the world is a different place. I am a stranger in this world.”

A stranger because, in the words of one of his lawyers, Kyle McClain, “James McClurkin is still, officially, a convicted murderer.” McClain, executive director of the South Carolina Actual Innocence Justice Center, said McClurkin still has the stigma of being convicted of killing Claude Killian in 1973.

“How many places want to hire somebody who is honest and says that ‘Yes, I have a past conviction. It is for murder. But I didn’t do it.’? The answer is few, or none,” McClain said.

McClurkin was granted parole in October and released in November after Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood told the South Carolina parole board that McClurkin and co-defendant Ray Charles Degraffenreid were innocent. Underwood testified that the key witness against the men in the 1977 trial, Melvin “Smokey” Harris, confessed to being the real killer and there was evidence implicating Harris as the real killer.

Harris, who died in prison in 2015 for an unrelated 1992 murder, recanted his claims against McClurkin and Degraffenreid.

Underwood’s statements to the parole board that the convictions were likely wrong, and McClurkin’s subsequent first minutes of freedom after 15 previous failed attempts at parole, have been chronicled in The Herald.

But since being paroled, McClurkin has lived in poverty.

“There have been so many times I have cried,” McClurkin said. “There was no cellphones, no smartphones, none of the technology and changes in society that happened while I was incarcerated.... I even had to learn how to pump gas into a car...How am I supposed to be able to get back into life, to live life, if I can’t get a job or get a drivers license? I want to be like everybody else. I want to work. I want to contribute. I want to vote.”

As a convicted felon, McClurkin can’t vote.

But maybe, soon, that will change.

It is possible this summer that a judge will say the Chester police and prosecutors of the 1970s botched the case. This week, McClurkin’s lawyers formally asked for a judge to hear their side.

Wrongfully convicted

Lawyers for McClurkin filed a lawsuit that says parole is not enough. Freedom from prison is a step, but prison shouldn’t have happened, the lawyers say. Degraffenreid’s lawyers recently mailed in court documents. They too want the convictions vacated.

McClurkin is represented by the South Carolina Actual Innocence Justice Center, made up of McClain, who recently moved to South Carolina from Texas, and Columbia lawyers Michael Jeffcoat, Dayne Phillips.

“James McClurkin is factually innocent, and actually innocent,” McClain said. “The evidence shows that he did not commit the crime of murdering Claude Killian. There is no physical evidence, none, that connects James McClurkin to the crime. This is a universal injustice that has to be corrected.”

The innocence center lawyers took the case free of charge.

Believing in each other

Degraffenreid, McClurkin’s lifelong friend and co-defendant, receives support for his mental disability and has medical and other needs taken care of, his lawyer said. But McClurkin has no such official disability.

“I have had very generous people in my family, and others, but I want to be self-sufficient,” McClurkin said. “But for so many years nobody believed me. These lawyers, they are the first people to listen to me. To believe in me.”

The innocence center team has created a page at the “You Caring” web site for people to donate money to help McClurkin. The money will be used for medical bills, clothing, and painting supplies (a ladder, buckets, brushes, and tarps) so McClurkin can earn his own money.

“I want to work,” McClurkin said.

McClain, lawyer for McClurkin, said the innocence center only takes cases where the person is innocent. Not maybe innocent. Not possibly is innocent.

“James McCurkin has tried for 40 years to get people to listen to him,” McClain said. “He spent all those years in prison for a crime he did not commit. And now that he is out on parole, he is still without means. We are proud to help him.”

On a recent day McClurkin wore a t-shirt with a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the words “The dreamer.” On the other side was a photo of former President Barack Oabma and the words “historic change.”

At the bottom of the shirt were the words: “Yes, we can.” McClurkin and McClain say, given the chance in court to prove that McClurkin is innocent, they will.

Want to Help?

To donate to the You Caring Web site fund page for James McClurkin, visit https://www.youcaring.com/jamesmcclurkin-815274

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