Man serves 39 years; cops now say he’s not guilty

Associated Press

Columbia, S.C. — Authorities have freed a South Carolina man who served 39 years in prison for a murder that they now say he didn’t commit.

“I am free,” The Herald of Rock Hill quoted James Robert McClurkin as saying. “The air. It smells different. Like freedom.”

McClurkin, 61, left Broad River Prison on Thursday as a parolee after police and prosecutors said he did not kill 74-year-old Claude Killian of Chester in August 1973.

“I have been trying for 39 years … to try and get someone, anybody, to believe me,” McClurkin said. “I am out now, paroled. I am a free man. But that is not the end. I am still convicted. I want to be exonerated. I did not kill Claude Killian.”

McClurkin and Ray Charles Degraffenreid were convicted of Killian’s murder in 1977. The evidence against them was the word of a co-defendant, Melvin Harris. The three had been friends since childhood. Last month, Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood told the South Carolina parole board that McClurkin was innocent. McClurkin was paroled Oct. 11 but was not released until Thursday.

His attorney, Jerry Bloom, said he is going to ask a judge to overturn the conviction.

“He deserves to have his name cleared,” Bloom said.

The newspaper reported that Degraffenreid is in a prison mental wing. McClurkin says Degraffenreid also should be released.

McClurkin said Degraffenreid was helping somebody fix a car in Bascomville when Killian was killed in 1973 and that he was in Great Falls with two other people, including Harris’ uncle.

“They investigated us and cleared us,” he said. “But then Melvin Harris lied and said we did it. And we been in prison ever since. And Ray Charles — he broke down because of it. He deserves to get out of prison, too. We both are innocent.”

McClurkin, Degraffenreid and Harris were all convicted in late 1973 of an armed robbery that happened two weeks after Killian was killed at a car wash. All pleaded guilty.

Harris also was charged with Killian’s murder but never prosecuted, the newspaper reported. He became the star witness against his friends. Harris later admitted that he lied before he died in prison for another 1992 murder, the newspaper reported.

Harris told McClurkin’s lawyer at the time in 1992 that he was the one who killed Killian in 1973. But a judge ruled that Harris was not believable, and McClurkin and Degraffenreid stayed in prison.

Sheriff Underwood agreed in 2015 at the request of McClurkin’s family to re-open the case. A detective found what police describe as “huge discrepancies in the evidence.”

“We found that these two men McClurkin and Degraffenreid were not there at the time of the crime,” Underwood said. “They had alibis and witnesses that had them in other places.”

McClurkin said he blames race — he’s black and the victim was white — for the conviction. The jury, prosecutor and judge were white.

“What happened in 1977?” he asked. “I was black and I got life, that’s what happened.”