BookBrowse Reviews When Truth Is All You Have by Jim McCloskey, Philip Lerman

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When Truth Is All You Have

A Memoir of Faith, Justice, and Freedom for the Wrongly Convicted

by Jim McCloskey, Philip Lerman

When Truth Is All You Have by Jim  McCloskey, Philip Lerman X
When Truth Is All You Have by Jim  McCloskey, Philip Lerman
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2020, 320 pages

    Paperback:
    Jun 2021, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Jim McCloskey, founder of a nonprofit with a mission to exonerate the wrongfully imprisoned, sheds light on the failings of the United States' justice system in this powerful memoir.

In 1979, Jim McCloskey was a successful business consultant making a high salary, yet he felt his life was strangely empty and unfulfilled. Thumbing through a Bible one Saturday night, he randomly came across a story in which Jesus says the words "follow me," and the passage struck a chord. Shortly thereafter, at the age of 37, McCloskey enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary to fulfill the calling. His first pastoral assignment was at Trenton State Prison, where he met Jorge de los Santos – aka Chiefie – who swore he didn't commit the murder for which he was incarcerated. McCloskey came to believe him, and, finding the idea of an innocent man behind bars insupportable, he spent the next two years struggling against the judicial system, eventually managing to get the man exonerated. He came away from the experience realizing that Chiefie was far from the only innocent person behind bars, and decided he was called to correct these injustices. When Truth Is All You Have is McCloskey's memoir (co-authored by Philip Lerman) recounting his work and the journey that led him to undertake it.

McCluskey quickly realized that freeing someone was an expensive proposition. Even with many donating their time to help, the fees added up; he states that the average cost to exonerate someone is $200,000. This led him to form the nonprofit Centurion to help with fundraising. Centurion was the first organization in the United States to start an innocence project (there are now over 50 in the country) and it remains one of the few that will take on cases not dependent on DNA evidence. It has helped free 63 men and women as of 2019 — individuals who on average have spent 21 years in jail for crimes they did not commit.

Every part of McCloskey's story is fascinating, but I found the descriptions of his work particularly enlightening. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, a person's race and socioeconomic background influence how they're treated by the judicial system. Despite making up just 13 percent of the U.S. population, 60 percent of the people freed by Centurion are Black. The author states:

The majority of those we've freed at Centurion are African American, and in case after case… the inherent racial prejudice that is endemic to the American criminal justice system has been one more huge boulder we had to try to overturn in getting those innocent men and women freed. So often, when the suspect is black and the victim is white, it's "Guilty until proven innocent."

Another real eye-opener for me was how easy it can be for an innocent person to be wrongfully convicted of a crime, and how hard it is to overturn a verdict. The author states that in over 40 percent of the cases Centurion has taken on there is clear evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. He's encountered lying investigators, witnesses who were persuaded to lie, and prosecutors eager to convict anyone, so long as the case is successfully closed. And courts won't order new trials based on evidence of innocence alone, only granting retrials if it can be demonstrated that the petitioner didn't receive a fair trial (e.g., the person's rights were violated, the court-appointed attorney was inept, etc.). I found the multiple instances of evidence suppression and witness manipulation that McCloskey relates truly jaw-dropping.

The thing that really makes McCloskey's narrative work, though, is the sense that his account is completely honest. He's quite open about his own failings and candid about his behavior before entering the seminary, which often veered into actions and escapades (primarily sexual in nature) one wouldn't expect from someone who has found his vocation in ministry. He's also frank about how his faith has ebbed and flowed over the years. McCloskey's belief in God is evident throughout, but the narrative is never preachy. His message is more along the lines of, "This is who I am, this is what I believe. I realize you may not feel the same…and that's OK."

When Truth Is All You Have is an inspiring work; the author states that the book is his attempt to "ask you to join us – to walk beside us, when you can, in whatever way you can," and he will likely succeed in accomplishing this mission with many in his audience. It's also eminently readable, more of a page-turner than most memoirs, and its revealing account of our justice system's failings is both important and timely. I recommend it for a broad group of readers, and book groups in particular will find many excellent topics of discussion here.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2020, and has been updated for the July 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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