- For Attorneys
- For the Public
Everyone has heard of the Innocence Project, the New York-based program run by celebrity lawyer Barry Scheck. But not as many people are familiar with Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey nonprofit committed to the same mission: the exoneration of wrongly convicted inmates.
Founded 32 years ago by Jim McCloskey, a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, Centurion Ministries does not handle as many cases as its more famous counterpart in the Big Apple. Nor does it place the same reliance on DNA testing, although that is starting to change. Instead, Centurion employs what executive director Kate Germond calls a “boots on the ground” approach: reexamining every shred of evidence, both testimonial and physical, in its clients’ cases.
The process is arduous. A typical investigation can last for seven years and cost $500,000. But the approach has resulted in the exoneration of over 50 clients, many of whom were sitting on death row or serving life sentences. The most recent one: Richard Lapointe, a squat, bespectacled Connecticut inmate dubbed “Mr. Magoo” because of his poor eyesight and unfortunate resemblance to the cartoon character. Prosecutors announced in early October that they would not retry Lapointe for the 1992 murder of his 88-year-old grandmother after Centurion, in one of its rare uses of DNA evidence, proved Lapointe’s innocence.
Having made “public service” my theme this year, I decided in July to pay a visit to Centurion and see what makes these folks, who have devoted their careers to public service, tick.
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Centurion Ministries is based in Princeton. But don’t expect toney, ivy-covered digs near Palmer Square. Germond and her litigation director, Paul Casteleiro, labor in relative anonymity, in a drab brick office complex on Route 206. The setting seems incongruous for the likes of Casteleiro, a shaggy-haired 1973 graduate of “The People’s Electric Law School” (otherwise known as Rutgers-Newark). But Germond has done her part to give their quarters a warm, cluttered look, hanging photos and other mementos on every inch of wall space and packing bookshelves with the police procedurals she devours during her downtime.
Germond began working for Centurion in 1987. She was inspired, she says, by the example of founder and Vietnam War veteran McCloskey, who, upon his ordination, undertook a campaign to exonerate a Trenton State Prison inmate he had counseled as a divinity student. (He succeeded.)
“Our families are very forgiving,” says Germond, who describes herself, only half-jokingly, as a drudge. “We work seven days a week. We have no hobbies,” she laughs. “But I love what I do. I’m a very snoopy, and I have been able to wed my snoopy nature to a strong sense of social justice.”
Centurion has over 20 active cases, including two in Canada. The organization is inundated with pleas for help. It receives 1,700 letters a year, and the staff responds to each one. But each missive is perused with a critical, even wary eye. Germond warns of the “seduction of the well-written letter.” It is easy, she says, to be “seduced” by an articulate inmate. That’s why Centurion insists on reviewing the trial record and all the briefs associated with a would-be client’s appeal. “That gives us a pretty good idea of what we’re dealing with.”
Before Centurion accepts a case, the senior staff must agree on the client’s innocence. “Everyone has a vote,” says Germond. Unanimity is required.
Once a case is taken, the real work begins — a field investigation that involves a visit to the crime scene, a recanvas of the neighborhood and the re-interview of witnesses. “We look for a window through which to crawl,” says Germond. Sometimes the investigative team finds new evidence. But “that’s a rare bird,” she says. Most cases are solved the old-fashioned way — by hitting the bricks and working with the persistence of a seasoned gumshoe.
Centurion has 25-30 volunteers, many of them retirees. Some work 10 hours a week; others, five days a week. They come from every walk of life — doctors, lawyers, school teachers, “every type of professional,” including legal secretary. One volunteer was Ronald Reagan’s scheduling secretary.
Last October, Centurion named Casteleiro, long affiliated with the organization, its full-time litigation director. His appointment roughly coincided with the retirement of McCloskey, Centurion’s guiding light.
Germond describes Casteleiro as “an extraordinary lawyer — brilliant, with a fierce commitment to his work. He is a collaborator in the very best sense.”
Early in his career, Casteleiro did a stint with the Legal Aid Society of New York. From 1974 to 1976, he worked as a public defender in Hudson County, handling some 50 trials. “It was much easier back then for young lawyers to get trial experience,” he says. “You tried whatever came your way.” Eventually, though, the job became overwhelming. “When I was a PD, if you were a pain in the ass, you could get a great result.” But he was not effecting systemic reform. “It was all about the work conditions. Getting along. You always compromised.” When the time came, Casteleiro says, he was “happy to leave” and open his own office in Hoboken.
He also met Jim McCloskey.
One of Casteleiro’s most famous exonerees was James “Jimmy” Landano, convicted in 1977 of killing a police officer in Kearny, N.J., during a botched robbery. After serving 13 years, Landano was released when Centurion uncovered information, suppressed by the trial prosecutor, identifying another man as the shooter.
The Landano prosecution was based largely on the word of a “snitch,” says Casteleiro. We “accumulated tons of great evidence.” But the State was unwilling to dismiss the charges, and the case was retried in 1998, nine years after Landano’s release on habeas corpus. Casteleiro walked his client in short order (although, in a dicey move, he declined to present a single witness, determining, rightly, that the State’s “shaky” case would wither under a jury’s scutiny).
Casteleiro has now set his sights on an inmate from Louisiana who was sentenced to life after a three-hour trial. As with his other clients, Casteleiro is convinced of the man’s innocence.
Still, Casteleiro concedes, the job “wears you down.” But like Germond, he keeps fighting, driven, he says, by ego and anger at the widespread injustice. It doesn’t hurt, he jokes, that he also suffers from oppositional defiant disorder. “The more I do this, the more provoked I become. We do horrendous damage by incarcerating people on false allegations.”
Casteleiro is deeply troubled that people only give lip service to the presumption of innocence. And he is completely confounded by their uncritical acceptance of the accounts of police officers. “Too often, people just assume the defendant is guilty. They resist believing in the fundamental principles of our justice system — the presumption of innocence, proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If we could just get people to accept these bedrock principles, really buy into them and apply them, we would have an entirely different” and more equitable system.