He entered the seminary in the fall of 1979, and in his second year of school chose an internship as a student chaplain at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, where he would counsel 40 men on a single tier. One was Jorge "Chiefy" de los Santos.

"From day one, all de Los Santos would talk about was his innocence.

He would exhaust me, he was so obsessed," McCloskey said. "All he could talk about was how he got framed."

Unsure whether to believe him, McCloskey read through the trial transcripts.

"Around Christimastime, I came back to Chiefy and said, `I believe you are innocent. Of course, I don't know if you're innocent, but I believe you, and I'm going to take a year off (from seminary) to move the ball forward, to see what I can do. That's my Christmas gift to you.'

"But it was also his gift to me. Because I thought if this man is innocent, and I believe he is, and if I can help free him, that is a meaningful, purposeful endeavor, and this makes me feel as if I'm really doing something for someone else."

After his exoneration, de los Santos did well for a while but later returned to drugs and died of an overdose in the late 1980s in the Bronx, McCloskey said.

But McCloskey insists his effort to free the man wasn't wasted, because it launched Centurion Ministries. By the time he graduated from seminary, he had two more innocent convicts he was helping.

McCloskey says his work -- including following-up with clients after their release -- "becomes a lifelong relationship." Freed inmates like Earl Berryman, one of Centurion's early success stories, agree.

"Jim and Kate and Centurion Ministries, I love'em, I love'em, I love'em," said Berryman, who spent a dozen years in prison for a rape he didn't commit until he was released in 1995. "And I let'em know I love'em. I don't want to let them down in no kind of way."

Sarah Golin writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark. N.J.
c. 2008 Religion News Service