PRINCETON, N.J. — Jim McCloskey remembers the rage boiling inside him as he read the paper on the train to work one morning in 1978. An 11-year-old girl in a Philadelphia housing project had been raped and stabbed to death with an ice pick. A man named Matthew Connor had been charged.
"I hope they burn that son of a gun," McCloskey recalls thinking.
Little did he realize how dramatically his opinion would someday change: McCloskey would trade his high-paying job and comfortable house for the austerity of seminary life. He would found a prison ministry. And he would help free Connor from prison.
McCloskey, 57, grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia without a thought of prisons or courtrooms. He seemed destined for a successful business career.
After graduating from Bucknell University in 1964, he spent three years in the Navy, including a tour in Vietnam. He returned to college to get his master's degree and then set out for Tokyo, where he landed a market-research job.
Four years later, he returned to the United States and a job with Hay & Associates, a Philadelphia management-consulting firm. He helped build its business in Japan and reaped the rewards of success.
But he also developed a nagging sense, after six years with the firm, that material riches weren't enough.
"The fuller I got, the emptier I became," he said.
He decided to reconnect with the faith he had abandoned in his teens. At Paoli Presbyterian Church, he grew fascinated with the sermons of pastor Dick Streeter, who exhorted his congregation to serve others.
The pastor noticed McCloskey too.
"He was a very prosperous young businessman, making a significant amount of money and traveling the world, and it wasn't really as fulfilling as he thought it would be," Streeter said. "He knew there was something more to life than that."
A Saturday night spent reflecting and reading the Bible convinced McCloskey that to heed the call to serve, he would have to turn away from his secular life.
"I thought Christ was speaking directly to me," he said.
His boss, William Dinsmore, "just about had a heart attack," McCloskey recalled. "He said, 'Jim, I didn't know you went to church.' I was very much in the closet as a Christian."
At Dinsmore's request, McCloskey stayed on another year. But in August 1979, he put the house up for rent and drove his Lincoln to Princeton Theological Seminary.
He imagined he would eventually become a church pastor, but the seminary's fieldwork requirement derailed that plan. Out of curiosity, he chose prison ministry and was assigned in the fall of 1980 to Trenton State Prison.
There he met Jorge De Los Santos, who was serving a life sentence for the 1975 murder of a Newark used-car salesman. De Los Santos insisted he was innocent and relentlessly made his case to McCloskey.
"He figuratively grabbed me by the throat. He said, 'What are you gonna do, say a prayer?' " McCloskey recalls.
McCloskey, a legal novice, decided to read the trial transcripts. He struggled mightily with the notion of challenging the system that had determined De Los Santos to be guilty.
Then he took another leap of faith. He decided to take a year off from his seminary studies and devote the time to freeing De Los Santos--on one condition.
"If I ever catch you lying, we're done," he told De Los Santos.
McCloskey moved out of seminary housing and rented a room that doubled as an office. He assembled a defense committee and raised $25,000 in contributions.
One lawyer who worked on the case was Paul Casteliero. He thought McCloskey had unrealistic expectations, but he was impressed by the divinity student's conviction.
"He was so outraged by the injustice," Casteliero said. "I thought, in some sense I knew, he was absolutely, positively, right."
The key was tracking down a jailhouse informant, Richard Dellisanti, who McCloskey believed had lied on the stand. McCloskey eventually reached Dellisanti through his mother and persuaded him, after several visits, to recant his testimony.
De Los Santos was freed in July 1983, after U.S. District Judge Frederick B. Lacey said Dellisanti's testimony "reeked of perjury."
McCloskey thought freeing De Los Santos would be a one-shot deal. But then De Los Santos introduced him to two other inmates who also believed they were wrongly imprisoned.
Two things held McCloskey back: He had spent his life savings freeing De Los Santos, and he was not entirely convinced that trying to clear the wrongly convicted was his true calling.
The financial dilemma was resolved by a gift of $10,000--McCloskey calls it "manna from heaven"--that his parents decided to give to each of their children.
It took a vivid dream to answer his remaining question:
"I'm in Vietnam, standing on a riverbank with someone, and we see a boat with refugees on it, and the boat sinks. We just kind of throw up our hands and say, 'There's nothing we can do.'