McCloskey had no reason to believe De Los Santos. After all, don't all inmates proclaim their innocence? But, as a new audience of one for the inmate, McCloskey finally agreed to skim legal documents from the case. To his surprise, he discovered that a witness who identified De Los Santos as the murderer had given false testimony. Furthermore, McCloskey discovered, as he dug deeper, that a fellow inmate had swapped an alleged jailhouse confession from De Los Santos for leniency, another deal never disclosed to the defendant. Well, McCloskey thought, maybe not all inmates who proclaim their innocence are lying.

McCloskey took a one-year leave from the seminary, raised $25,000, learned investigative techniques, and found a lawyer willing to file an appeal. He found the jailhouse informant whose testimony had helped prosecutors convict De Los Santos and persuaded him to admit he had lied. As a result, De Los Santos was freed in 1983.

ALTHOUGH IT DEFIES common sense and the principles of fairness and justice, evidence of actual innocence is frequently ignored when presented after a jury or a judge has issued a guilty verdict. Police, prosecutors, and judges value finality: They are overwhelmed by new cases; the victims deserve closure; new evidence sometimes is not probative; reopening cases is time-­consuming and expensive; the reasons pile up.

McCloskey began to understand the paths of resistance during his lonely, quixotic De Los Santos investigation. Wondering whether the obstacles would defeat his effort, McCloskey completed his divinity degree in 1983. By then, so many other needy inmates had approached him, McCloskey abandoned his dream of ministering to a congregation in a traditional church setting. Instead, he decided to devote his life to assisting men and women who appeared to fall into the category of "imprisoned ­innocent."