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From W.H y y in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with Fresh Air Weekend. Today we talk with McKayla Cole, the writer, director and star of the HBO series. I May Destroy You. She plays a young writer who sexually assaulted, but she has no idea what happened because her drink was spiked. Cole created the series after she experienced the trauma of being sexually assaulted. Cole also wrote and starred in the series.
Chewing Gum. Also, we hear from Jim McClusky, a lay minister who's devoted the past 40 years of his life to seeking justice, freedom and exoneration for men and women on death row or serving life sentences for crimes they did not commit. John Grisham calls McCluskey the dean of all innocence advocates. Later, John Powers reviews Zadie Smith new collection of essays that were written between the onset of the pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd. This message comes from NPR sponsor State Farm.
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My guest, McKayla Cole, is the creator, writer, director and star of the new HBO series. I May Destroy You. The show is leading to a lot of conversation because it's about a subject that can be hard to talk about rape as well as forms of sexual assault that the victim may not even realize is assault. I may destroy you as a stylish, sometimes funny drama starring Cole as Arabella, a young writer whose first book, Chronicles of a Fed Up Millennial, was published online.
It made her famous on social media, but now she's trying to complete a draft for her second book. She takes a break one night, goes for a drink with a friend, and later regains consciousness with no memory of what happened. She figures out her drink was spiked. She has unsettling images in her mind that she can't shake of a man above her. She doesn't know if the men in this image is the man who raped her, and she's kind of in denial that she was raped.
As the series goes on, she tries to cope with the assaults, profound effects on her life while also trying to meet her publishing deadlines. McKayla Cole was assaulted in a similar way when she was writing and starring in her first TV series, Chewing Gum. That was a comedy about a naive 24 year old in East London desperately trying to lose her virginity. Cole also starred in the Netflix series Black Earth Rising, playing a young woman saved from the Rwandan genocide.
Cole's parents are from Ghana. Before we start my interview with Mikaela Cole, I want you to know that part of our discussion will be about sexual assault, but nothing explicit. Nevertheless, some listeners may find that part of the discussion too disturbing. Let's start with a clip from I May Destroy You. The young writer Arabella, suspecting she's been raped, goes to the police station to report it. She tries to answer the police woman's questions, but still isn't sure.
With the flashbacks of the man on top of her mean, she's not sure they're actually a memory. She calls these flashing images the thing in my head. Here's Michela Kollars, Arabella and Sara Niall's as the police officer who speaks first. You so you recall thing in my hands. Yes, I would in that case. Now, your your calling it something I never said. Do you see anyone else? In his memory, you can't call it a memory.
OK. Other than the man in the in my head, he may not even be real excited. The president can actually see it and I'm not sure I should.
Probably pay attention to. Yes. Because we don't know. That's a very big thing to assume. I'm just saying that we should refrain from talking about things, facts, and we should we should foliages. OK, McKayla Cole spoke to us from her home in London. Mikaela Cole, welcome to Fresh Air and congratulations on the series. Before we really get into things like how are you? How are you doing during the pandemic? I haven't been following closely how things are in London.
So are you basically just staying home?
Yes. First of all, hi, Terry. It's really lovely to talk with you. Thank you for having me on. I'm taking it day by day. It's we're not too far behind America. I think weather third in terms of how big the impact has been and how much it spreads here. It's it's an adjustment. But my my mom is is actually a nurse on the front lines. And I try to look to see how she behaves, to guide how I behave.
And she's really, you know, in very good spirits and quite excited that she's able to contribute to tackling the problem. So and she's very grateful and happy. So I just keep looking to my mom instead of coming. Very anxious. Yes.
So let's get to it. What? Why did you want to write a series where rape and various forms of sexual assault are at the center of the story?
I think in the beginning I wanted to write about it because it had happened. And I have a habit of writing some sort of piece that's inspired by reality, whether it's poetry or music or a one woman play or a TV show. And because I found it so huge in my life, it seemed only natural for me to write it. But as I began thinking about doing this, other people started sharing their stories with me, friends, friends of friends.
And I realized that many people had some sorts of experience that was connected to mine involving sent. And there were so many different ways to explore consent and how it affects us today. So what better places for a story than one that I felt many people could find and ID in? You know, in the story, Arabela is giving her a roofie who Dreher drink is spiked and she doesn't know what happened, she doesn't know how it happened or who did it or who may have witnessed it.
And she doesn't even know if it really happened or maybe doesn't want to accept the fact that it really happened.
Was it traumatic for you to write about this and to act the part? For some people, I think it might have brought on kind of PTSD.
Yes. Especially writing it. Did it bring on PTSD? I was probably already suffering from PTSD. It was really interesting because it almost sent me around the bend back in to the shock. It suddenly felt very new. It still startled me that it had happened. So writing it definitely made the event feel very present again, performing at it. I just loved I really loved to perform. You know, I love it. I love the act because there is a team of people that we had a therapist that was on site at all times.
So it felt like I could be safe to explore very dangerous areas in a very safe playground.
So I want to ask you if it's OK if I talk with you about your own experience and you could guide me with what you're comfortable talking about and what you're not, because I don't want to cross any boundaries here. So can I ask a little bit about your own experience and how it led to this series?
Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much. So did you experience the same kind of thing that Arabella does where you had a drink that was spiked, where you were given a roofie and basically lost consciousness and didn't know what happened?
Yes. How did you piece together what had happened? Like, had. Did you have friends who could help you? Did you have a similar kind of image in your head of somebody, you know, being over you or on top of you and not knowing who it was or what it meant? Yes. Oh. In many ways. Arabella's story at that point in the series is very similar to mine. But there are differences that I've intentionally kept so that there's always a distinction between myself and our.
But yes, I was writing and I know myself. It's a production office that I was making a TV show for and went on a break to meet my friend in a ball. And I had a drink. And then I was back at work typing and finishing the episode it was. And didn't quite realize, you know, my phone was smashed. I was a mess, but I didn't quite connect the dots until I had a flashback. And then, yes, I had friends who helped me going through supersedes bank statements, calling other friends to literally try and gather the pieces.
So all stories, all are different, but there are many, many similarities.
So let me play a clip. And this is the first time that Arabella's sees her therapist and she's still is not even close to having processed what happened to her. So here's the therapist asking the first question. This is about two months after the rape.
How are you doing? I'm great. Great. Great. As long as I'm around people when I'm alone. Flashbacks is sometimes, I guess, a bit much. What do you do when it gets a bit much? I hang around someone, anyone. And if I'm not, I say there are hungry children. There are hungry children. There are hungry children. There's a war in Syria. There's a war in Syria. There's a war in Syria.
Well, not everyone has a smartphone. No one has a smartphone. No one has a smartphone to remind myself of the bigger picture. Sometimes when we try our best to see the big picture, when you saw the little one altogether, little detail here is you.
So that's a scene from my May Destroy You and my guest, Michela Kohler's the creator, writer, director and star.
You know, I think the therapist advice is so interesting. I think both ends of that are so interesting that Arab Belote trying to convince herself. Okay, maybe I was right. But like, there's worse things in the world, like there's war or there's famine. It's like I'm fine. And a therapist saying you're losing yourself. If you're just looking at the big picture, you're not seeing you're not honoring what happened to you.
I just think that's a very interesting insight. I'm wondering if that's an insight you came to on your own or through therapy.
Oh, well, I wonder. I really don't know how I came to that, whether that was my incredible therapist or whether that was my. You know, I definitely look at myself and my tendency to look out instead of looking in and sometimes looking out is almost an escape from looking in. So, yes, there are hungry children. There is a war in Syria. Not everybody. But he does have a smartphone. And within this world, you were right rather than I was right.
But there's people that have small friends. It's and it's and and if you using the outside world to escape your introspection, I think that's where I live. Well, it goes wrong and where I've definitely gone wrong in my life. Can I ask if you ever found out who raped you? You can tell me no. No, I don't think I need to tell you, you know, I was thinking about. I didn't. I didn't just like the majority of women in the world who's during sex whites by strangers.
I didn't. My guest is McKayla Cole, the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series. I May Destroy You. She also wrote and starred in the series Chewing Gum. We'll hear more of our conversation after a short break. And John Powers will review a new collection of essays by Zadie Smith written between the onset of the pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd. This is Fresh Air Weekend.
A Minneapolis business owners daughter is called out publicly for racist anti black tweets, fighting to save his business and trying to make amends. He calls on a prominent black Muslim leader for help. He's an Arab Muslim and that's his brother. Come on. He has to tell me what to do. Dear, what happens next? Listen to Code Switch from NPR.
Let's get back to my interview with McKayla Cole, the creator, writer, director and star of the HBO series. I May Destroy You. She also wrote and starred in the series Chewing Gum. Let's talk about your life. Describe what you grew up in London. I grew up in Tower Hamlets. A borough neighboring city of London on a housing association, council estates. So it's a building that sits in a place and homes. Maybe something like 300 different homes.
I'm not sure the number around that. But outside of that, it's just the Royal Bank of Scotland. The London Stock Exchange is there. So it's not a neighbourhood or residential area. It's just a building where it's part funded by the government to live. So it's for people who are below us. That's an economic threshold.
So I know your parents were from Ghana. Your mother raised you. I think her parents separated before you were born. So were there other children who had parents who were immigrants from countries in in Africa? Did you have people your age who you could talk to who had similar backgrounds? Yeah, definitely, and I also have my sister. She was two and a half years older than me. So it was it was there was something also quite lovely about being in a house with three women.
It meant that we were quite free. We we didn't have to, you know, moderate the things we wore necessarily or anything like that because there was no man in the house. So there's something quite freeing about that. And when I went to high school, it was lovely to meet other people who were also children of immigrants who looked like me. And it's very nice to see yourself reflected in that way.
So my understanding of the story is that you had joined a dance group and it turned out that the group was affiliated with the Pentecostal church and you ended up being born again and being a member of the church when you were in your late teens and a member of the church. What did you find most attractive about being a part of it?
Definitely, I would say. The sense of something beyond discovering something outside of yourself and the community, the community of people, they all believed in this same thing that named the thing beyond does the same name. You went to Catholic school. Can you compare the sense of religion you got from Catholic school to the sense that you got from being a member of the Pentecostal church?
Oh, I wouldn't say that there was any religion in the school. No.
But you were taught by nuns, probably, right? No, no. I think not. No, it's I don't know why. Why? It's a Catholic school. It's a Catholic school. But no, you're just taught by. Teachers who are not nuns, they're just teachers from from everywhere. I don't know where the nuns are, perhaps in the five years I was there and their sound units were absolutely dreadful.
So when you were in the Pentecostal church, did you speak in tongues?
I did. I first spoke in tongues in a park. We would do this thing called prayer in the park. And one of those prayer days I stopped was when I first spoke in tongues. Can you explain what it's like to speak in tongues?
And like, did you feel like you were inspired to do it by the you know, by the Divine Spirit? And that was just kind of coming out of you unprovoked, or did you try to figure out what to say or like how? How did that work for you?
Yes, I don't think it did come out of me unprovoked. And I was definitely having an experience of something beyond and I like that very much to the writing process when I don't necessarily know what I'm going to write. But I, I put my fingers on the keypad and something flows. It's also like improvising as a comedy group in English. This just happens to be tongue and it's it's unexplainable. But yes, it does happen.
And what was the experience of doing it? How did how did that feel? Did it make you feel more connected spiritually to other people in the church?
You know, now I just want to be very emotional, very, very, very emotional.
And then, you know, life carries on as normal. And I think I even got some. Congratulations. Welcome. Tongue Speaker. You have spoken in tongues and it would be nice. Sometimes I'd be in church and I'd speak in tongues again. Yes. I mean, obviously, I, I definitely don't speak in tongues anymore. But I you know, when I meditate, sometimes I cry. Hey, I'm sure if I want to speaking in tongues, which is just like sound of course, I think we could try it.
Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
I think the church probably had a kind of a set of approved and restricted behaviors. I'm wondering, like when you left the church, if you kind of headed in the opposite direction when the when the restrictions were lifted.
Interesting. Yes, definitely. But I don't know whether that was because of the church. The church always really did give me permission to be me. I've always been you know, I think people might describe me as a little bit. How would they describe me? I've been described as gratifyingly bonkers. And the church did the chants definitely did not try and dampen that in any way. They loved it. They they loved me performing poetry and gave me a lot of freedom.
However, it was the acting industry with its parties and fabulous people that definitely led me down a short stints of incredibly hedonistic cocaine fueled. Yes.
Did you draw on that for your series? I may destroy you also. I did, yes. Yes.
When you look at that period of your life, what are your thoughts about it?
Hey, I think my thoughts are very similar to when I wrote Bella. It takes all those drugs and somehow is escorted home very safely. I say, well, hey, you know, it's good that I'm unsafe and I'm healthy and I'm okay.
You know, I've been thinking a lot about what the differences may be between being African-American, between black being black in America, where most black people in America have descendants who were brought here on slave ships and people of African descent in England because they were not brought there as slaves, but they were colonized by various European countries. And I'm just saying, if you've given a lot of thought about what the differences that might be and if you have many black friends in America and have talked with them about some of the differences, about what it means to be black in England versus America.
Yes. Yes, I have actually I had to have some black friends in America. I think we find it fascinating and discuss these things quite a lot. There's an experience that I have here in Britain as a child of African immigrants that I think has similarities and differences. Obviously, my my parents were not born here. They had a mother tongue is is different. You know, I had not been to Ghana until two thousand and eighteen. I've never been there.
So there's no lineage to trace in the land that, you know, person. But also, when I go to Ghana, even the way I walk, you will know that I am not a mess. I'm not gone and born and raised in Ghana. So that exists. However, I think that beyond being sent there on slave ships, African-Americans also can't trace their lineage. You know what happens before that? How did they where did they come from on these slave ships?
They aren't able to trace that. Even so, I think there is a similarity in that sense of being displaced. I did hear from some of my friends that. In America, people like me who are British, African are seen differently as people from who are African-American. You know, perhaps there's a strange privilege being me in America that is denied to people who are African-American. And I don't know whether it's because I don't share that history of of slavery being the descendants of slaves, you know, the African-Americans dealing with people in America when we're not sure.
But it's it's fascinating.
Do you think that people's attitudes sometimes change toward you once they hear your British accent?
Exactly. That's exactly. That's something about the accent. I don't you know, I think this Britain has done a very good job of perpetuating narrative, of being very fine and fancy and elegant. And I think this somehow enters the minds of Americans when they hear it, which it's interesting because it's not real. It's not real at all. It's all based on these stereotypes and prejudices. And, you know, I sometimes say the I've I've dropped out of college three times, but my my voice is giving you a different story.
Also, I think, you know, I talked to a lot of my black British friends and especially the actors and creatives. Your voice perhaps this is also in America. I think this is an America and actually beyond African-Americans, I think this is for people who are born into working class homes that to progress in your field, you have to change your voice. And it's not that conscious. But my voice has changed so much as have my peers who are also from Working-Class backgrounds and I'm black, that we sometimes wonder.
I wonder why can't I sound like the person that that I was? It's interesting which we change and we refine our voices. And I've never seen anybody who is black and working class and British furthered themselves in their careers without having to to change their voice.
Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. It's just been a pleasure to talk with you and congratulations on the series.
Thank you for having me, Terry. McKayla Cole created, wrote, directed and stars in the HBO series. I May Destroy You. The English writer Zadie Smith is best known for novels such as White Teeth and Swing Time, and she's widely admired for her nonfiction and her new book, Intimations Six Essays, which will be published Tuesday. Smith writes about what's been going on over the last few months. Our critic at large, John Powers, says it's a book as bracingly deep as it is refreshingly slim.
Fiction writers spend much of their lives creating Made-Up worlds, which may be why they can't resist writing about the real one. Yet when they do weigh in on current events like the pandemic or the racial reckoning triggered by the George Floyd killing their often eloquent but rarely say anything new or valuable, there are, of course, exceptions. Over the years, I've read and reread Grace Paley and James Baldwin and never failed to learn from them whether they were writing about Vietnam, racism or feminism.
Even when I disagreed, I trusted them because they were principled, yet open to the many sidedness of experience. They were voices of wisdom. A current writer I trust is Zadie Smith. And before going any further, I should add that when she first hit big 20 years ago with her debut novel, White Teeth, I was officially a Zaydi skeptic. Not because of anything she'd done. White Teeth is a terrific first novel, but because, as a mixed race London woman in her early 20s, Smith too perfectly fit the media's need for a writer who could embody the fantasy of a fun, attractive, multicultural new millennium.
In fact, I was totally wrong. Smith herself seemed to rebel against the cultural role she'd been assigned. And these days I find in her work what I once found in Paley and Baldwin, a clarifying lucidity wedded to bighearted moral awareness. These virtues shine through her powerful new collection, Intimations six essays, which she began at the onset of the pandemic and finished shortly after Floyds killing, although only a hundred pages. It made me think more than most books five times that length.
There's something worth quoting on virtually every page as its title intimates Intimations isn't a tome with a grand thesis. Instead, Smith presents a series of elegant short essays about living with and maybe resisting what we're going through right now in the American exception. She begins with President Trump saying that he wishes we could have our old life back when we had a great economy and, quote, we didn't have death, unquote. She doesn't cite this to him. Heck, I wanted that, too.
But to reflect on everything from our desire to turn back the clock to our nation's inegalitarian health care. Death comes to all, she notes wryly. But in America, it has always been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of Dulay to the highest bidder. The essay, Something to Do, addresses an issue that many of us have faced during the lockdown. How do we fill our time? Smith uses the idea of obsessive doing the endless baking of banana bread, for instance, to touch on Puritan ideas of achievement, middle class anxiety about self-improvement, and in a brilliant pivot, the hollowness of mere doing compared to the fullness of loving.
In another essay, she invokes the idea of social privilege. Yet doesn't use it punitively to diminish other people's pain. Suffering, she writes, has an absolute relation to the suffering individual. It cannot easily be mediated by a third term like privilege. If it could, the CEO's daughter would never starve herself, nor the movie idol ever put a bullet in his own brain. Smith is interested in people as well as ideas, and the chapter called Screen Grabs.
She tells us about the hoverboard ing tech guy from work whose devotion to style reveals a social truth for many young adults. Style is all they have as a counterweight to economic insecurity and untenable debt in the most devastating of these grabs. Smith examines the look on the face of the officer who killed George Floyd and explains why she dislikes the label hate crimes. The term reinforces the perpetrator's belief that the slaughter of, say, innocent churchgoers possesses a special, almost philosophical grand.
You're. Smith has a mind that I just love watching work, and I could go on and on discussing the great bits in this slim volume from her analysis of how zooming leads us to aesthetic size, our conversations to the books quietly galvanizing final line as she hopscotches from the personal to the political. The topical to the internal intermissions begins with a discussion of peonies. Smith does more than illuminate what we're going through right now. She offers a model of how to think ourselves through a fraught historical moment without getting hysterical or sanctimonious, without losing our compassion or our appreciation for what's good in other people.
She teaches us how to be better at being human.
John Powers reviewed Zadie Smith's new book called Intimations Six Essays. Coming up, we hear from Jim McCleskey, a lay minister who's devoted the past 40 years of his life to seeking justice, freedom and exoneration for men and women on death row or serving life sentences for crimes they did not commit. This is fresh air weekend. We're only months away from Election Day and every week or even every few hours, there's a new twist that could affect who will win the White House.
To keep up with the latest, tune into the NPR Politics podcast every day to find out what happened and what it means for the election.
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My guest, Jim McKlusky is part detective, part man of God while studying at Princeton Theological Seminary, planning to become an ordained minister. He did field work at a prison. There he met a man serving a life sentence for murder, a man who convinced McCleskey he was innocent. McCleskey took a leave from Princeton to work on this case and somehow succeeded, although he had no legal background. It led McCleskey to found one of the first innocence projects Centurion Ministries, dedicated to reopening the cases of men and women unjustly convicted of murder.
John Grisham calls McCluskey the dean of all innocence advocates. The exonerated and McCluskey's new memoir, When Truth Is All You Have. He writes about his life, the cases he's taken on and how his faith in God was sometimes challenged, and how his faith in the justice system was shaken by police who lied on the witness stand. Prosecutors who knew and judges who turned a blind eye to the whole thing. Jim McCluskey is now retired, but still serving on the board of Centurion Ministries and still working on cases.
He's a lay minister. Jim McCluskey, welcome back to Fresh Air. It is such a great pleasure to talk with you again. And I love your new memoir. Well, thank you, Terry.
It's great to be here. I'm happy to have returned.
So you are very religious as a child. And then you headed in the opposite direction. You became kind of wild. You served in the military. You had a good paying job at a consulting company. Still, you you went through these different phases of your life, but then you decided to go to Princeton Theological Seminary and around 1980. Why did you make that shift in in your life?
Well, you know, I was 37 years old and I had been in Japan in business for a number of years. And when I came back to the United States and began working for a Philadelphia consulting company by the name of Hay Associates, and things were going well there. But throughout the 1970s, when I was in my thirties, I became disillusioned with the business world. My place in it, I didn't find the work to be fulfilling. I didn't feel as if I was leading a real, authentic life.
I wasn't serving anyone other than the corporation and myself. And I went back to church for the first time in 14, 15 years, and I went to pay only Presbyterian Church in. And I really was impressed with our minister, Dick Streator, who was a large a large suburban congregation. He was really touching the hearts and the souls of his congregants. And I looked at myself and I wasn't touching the heart and soul of anybody, really. And I also at the same time became very serious in and took a deep dive into the scriptures.
And the next thing I knew, I was feeling a call to leave the business world and go into the ministry so that I, too, could serve the interests of others in a real significant fashion and maybe help change lives like Dick Streator was changing my life. So I decided to go to someone to give up the business world and go to summer and become an ordained Presbyterian church pastor.
That's not exactly what happened, though, because you took a detour for your field work. You asked to be placed at a prison. You became a prison chaplain, and there you met the first person who led you to do innocense work. And he told you he had done bad things, but that he hadn't committed murder. He was convicted when he was 28 and was serving a life sentence. Why did you believe him? Because a lot of people say everyone in prison will tell you that they're innocent.
Well, I'd like to put that canard to rest. That's not true in my experience, anyhow. What? I was a student chaplain, trend state president and met her. Let's start. This were the first time there were 40 inmates and each of them in their respective cells. So I was ministering, if you will, to 40 different inmates and only two were claiming to be innocent. To my surprise. A number of them were telling me what they did.
So most people, in my experience, don't say they're innocent, although somehow that that has come to be believed by most almost everybody. But anyway, hey, we call it his nickname was Chief C.H. ISEF, i.e.. And as soon as I met Mr. Dalal Santo's as a student chaplain, standing before his cell, he claimed to be an innocent man of murder. And I didn't believe that. I thought, come on, that doesn't happen in America.
We have the best criminal justice system there can be. And if there are any innocent people in prison, it's certainly an aberration and an isolated case. But there he was. Every time I would come by his cell and we would chat or he would talk about what was his innocence and he didn't do it. And over the course of several months, I came to be provoked by his cries of innocence, thinking to myself, could this really be is he what he says?
He is an innocent man. And then it started from there. And he told you that he believed in God, but if God was going to help free him, he would have to be through you. You seem to take that very seriously.
Well, here's what happened. You know, I started the student chaplaincy work in September of 1980, and by Thanksgiving of that year, I was provoked by his cries of innocence. So I got hold of his trial transcripts. A lot of documents about the case, some 2000 pages. And that's what I did over the Thanksgiving holidays. I read all the transcripts. So now I had the state's case and I had his viewpoint of his conviction, how wrong it was.
So I asked him a ton of questions. And over time, you know, I have to say that I was Perlow. He was he was convicted based on what was a obviously, even in my early experience, an unreliable eyewitness account, plus a jailhouse confession where a career criminal had told Mr. Dallasites, this jury, that that the defendant confessed to him while they were in a county jail. Finally, when I came back from Thanksgiving. And he said, did you read the transcripts?
And I said, yes, they did. He said, Is there anything that I've told you that's not true? I said, no. He said, You've asked me a million questions over the last several months about my case. Now, I want to ask you a question. And I said, oh, boy, well, wonder what this is going to be. So he said, You believe I'm innocent. And I said, yes, I do believe you're innocent.
He said, well, what are you going to do about it? Somebody me will am I going to do about it? I don't know. I mean, just nothing. What can I do, Chief? I've I've never had any experience of in the criminal justice system at all. I'm just a seminary student down the road here. He said, well, I've been praying for six years for God to send somebody to free me. But you might not realize it, but you're that man.
You're my angel to free me out from under this this false conviction. I need you and God. God has chosen you to be that man. Then he then he really charge you. He said, what are you going to do? Are you going to go back to your nice, safe, secure little seminary and just pray for me? I said, well, that's what I was thinking about doing.
He said, that's not going to work if you're a real man of faith. You're going to come save me. And that's all there is to it. I have nobody else but you. Well, he got me to thinking. I went back to my safe, little secure seminary and did pray and think about it. And then I decided that, you know, I think I have to do this. I have to take a year off from school and work to see what I can move the ball forward to to try and free him.
Yeah. And you succeeded, which is really remarkable. One of the turning points was that a key witness confessed to you that his testimony was a lie. Tell us why he confessed and he confessed.
Well, his name was Richard Della Santé, which in Italian Means of the Saints. And coincidentally, Chief, his last name was Delo Santos, which in Spanish means of the Saints. And I will say this, that neither of the two were saints. But Chief, he was was, in my view, was not a killer. He was a heroin addict on the streets of Newark. But Richard Della Sarti had also I learned later through my investigation that he was a longtime informant for the Essex County prosecutor's office up in Newark, New Jersey.
They would use him on a number of cases to come in and give some incriminating testimony, false testimony about a defendant. One of those was his own first cousin, Danny Della Sarti. He testified against his own first cousin and falsely said that Danny confessed that murder to him. So I went to the Della Santé family. And long story short, they introduced me to Richard. They kept asking Richard to please talk to Mr. McCluskey if he if he's successful.
For Mr. De Los Santos, he'll be six. He'll he'll that will help Danny get freed. So over it took a year until finally I got a telephone call and out of the blue from Richard Dallasite day. And he said, I know who you are. I know what you're doing. If you want to talk to me, I'm ready to talk to you. And when I visited him for two straight days, hours per day up at the Hudson County Jail in Jersey City.
And the reason he told me that he's finally coming forward and telling the truth. He said, I'm just tired of living a lie. I'm tired of being the pinch hitter for the Essex County prosecutor's office. They've been running my life for 10 years and I'm tired of it. And now all I wanna do is tell the truth and get this off my conscience. Did the prosecutor know that he was giving false testimony? There's no question that he did it.
Mr. De La Census's trial under direct examination by the trial prosecutor. The prosecutor asked Richard Dallasite day. Have you ever informed in any other case. Are you an informant? And Richard said, no, I'm not an informant. This is the first time I've done this. All the while the prosecutor do that. That was a lie, because prior to the post conviction evidence hearing, years later, we got access to the prosecutor's files. And there in the hand, the actual handwritten notes of the trial prosecutor was the statement that Richard Delahanty in habit of giving testimony.
So we prove to the federal district judges satisfaction as well. In his opinion, that freed and exonerated Mr. Dale Sato's federal district judge, Frederick Lacey, stated that the prosecutor knew the Dallas out, Artie was an informant and that suborn perjury.
What an introduction to the justice system. You had false testimony by somebody who is like a pro at it and then a prosecutor who is in on it and who knew about it. And a man serving a life sentence as a result of it. You must have just had this immediate cynicism after that experience.
Yes, I was starting to mature. I was starting to see the system with different eyes. And when I first met Chief, he two and a half years earlier and I got a baptism of fire, I saw firsthand how police and prosecutors manipulate evidence Cahiers witnesses into giving false testimony. You know, it was it was a stunner. And I started to have to really rethink my whole position on the integrity of police and prosecutors.
There must be such highs and lows in the work that you've done over the past 40 years. I mean, when you succeed in freeing a man or woman who is unjustly convicted, that must be such an exhilarating feeling. But on the other hand, even when you succeed in freeing somebody, it doesn't necessarily mean that they have a good life when they get out. It's so hard for many prisoners to make the transition back into life. I mean, you're you're coming to the outside world with, like, no money.
You don't know what's been going on in the world because you don't have. You haven't been living in it. You've been living in a cell for so long. And the first case that you took the case that inspired you to do this work for 40 years. Oh, hey, de Santo's, you succeeded in getting him exonerated, but then he hadn't had a very hard time when he got out of prison. Tell us what happened.
Yeah, well, what happened with Mr. De La Starters, tragically, was. That when we freed him in the summer of eighty three, within two years, he was back using drugs, heavily descended into his addiction again, which led him to commit crimes. He robbed some drug user, as he had done before. Before I met him. And he ended up doing another eight or nine years in New Jersey state presence as a result. By that time, we had faded from each other.
He was so ashamed of how he led his life subsequent to us exonerating him that he just lost complete contact with it. He didn't want to. He did. He just felt so ashamed. He didn't want to talk to because he knew what what transpired in his life. Anyway, he was found in a vacant lot in the in Brooklyn, murdered, beat to death. The supposition being that a drug buy went bad. And there he was. But let me say let me say this about that, if I may.
Terry, I still thank God for bringing him into my life, because were it not for that, Newark raised public housing project of Puerto Rican descent who was a heroin addict. Were it not for him. There would be no Centurion Ministries. Not only would there be no Centurion ministries, but I would have been lost in the world because I as I think back on it, I would not have been a good church pastor that just wasn't in me.
As it turns out. So he gave me new purpose, a new life, and I treasure that new life. And I thank God for her. Hadeel Satoh So and a point can be made that maybe the other 62 people that we freed might still be languishing in prison. And so I owe my life to that, that we gave him new life. And he chose to go at it in a different direction. And I don't hold that against him because he just could be the drugs.
I think the fate of her hadelich Santos made you realize that you had to keep in touch with people after they were freed, people who you had helped to free and helped them establish their life outside of prison. So that's a whole other aspect of the work that you've done. You even had one of the people who you helped exonerate live with you for a while.
Yes, you're absolutely right. Based on our experience with Mr. Dayglo thought, those we realized that we had another responsibility that we were originally unaware of. Not only freeing these people, but working with them to help them regain their lives and reintegrate back into society after many, many years of wrongful incarceration. So that was that has become a major part of our work over the years. And that also, by the way, you think there's stress with trying to free innocent people from prison and get them out?
There's a lot of stress attendant with these very personal situations of of doing our best to work with those we freed up to make sure that. Do we do what we can to be their friends, not just their advocates, but their friends and their support system, at least part of their support system as they go about regaining their lives?
Jim, it's been so great to talk with you again. Congratulations on your memoir and all the work you've done in the last 40 years. It's really been a pleasure to talk with you again.
Well, thank you very much, Terry. It was I really enjoyed once again talking with you and and you always ask great questions and you get down deep. And I appreciate that very much. So, thank you. Jim McCleskey is the founder of Centurion Ministries and author of the new memoir, When Truth Is All You Have.
Fresh Air Weekend is produced by two recent Maddin. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our technical director and engineers, Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Alice Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman. They are challenger Seth Kelly and Joel from Molly CVN. Esper is our associate producer of Digital Media. I'm Terry Gross.