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Second Chester man paroled for 1973 killing that police now say he did not commit

Ray Charles DeGraffenreid
Ray Charles DeGraffenreid

Ray Charles Degraffenreid calmly sat down Tuesday in front of a camera that beamed his face to the South Carolina parole board in Columbia. He spoke from the Broad River prison where he has been for 39 years for a killing he has always denied. His mental state has deteriorated.

He said these words: “I am innocent.”

The parole board then voted 5 for parole, with just one against – chairman David Baxter.

Degraffenreid is the second man in two months to be paroled for the 1973 killing of Chester clerk Claude Killian. Police now say neither man committed that crime. Yet both spent almost four decades in prison.

Joshua Kendrick, the lawyer for Degraffenreid, called the parole board decision “outstanding.”

Degraffenreid, who parole officials and Kendrick say has deteriorated mental capacity from years in prison, will undergo testing and other release requirements and will be freed to a place outside prison where he can get care, Kendrick said. Release will take at least several weeks, parole spokesman Pete O’Boyle said..

Degraffenreid and co-defendant James Robert McClurkin were convicted in a 1977 trial for the killing and robbery of Killian. Both men denied the crime then and have unsuccessfully fought the convictions ever since. Last year, Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood re-opened the case and found both men had alibis, witnesses and other evidence that Underwood says shows both men are innocent. Underwood told the parole board of his findings Oct. 11.

On that day, McClurkin was paroled, then released from prison Nov. 16.

Underwood and the detective assigned to the case were at Tuesday’s parole board hearing, but a mix-up in where they were supposed to testify forced the officers to miss giving the same information about Degraffenreid that was offered Oct. 11. Parole board members said they had heard Underwood’s testimony in October and knew the case.

“I am pleased that the board made the right decision and paroled Mr. Degraffenreid,” Underwood said after the hearing. “He was not there when the killing took place in 1973. He had an alibi and we have talked to witnesses who said he was miles away.”

Melvin “Smokey” Harris was chosen by police and prosecutors in 1977 as the key witness to testify against Degraffenreid and McClurkin. His testimony came in exchange for a lighter sentence on other crimes from 1977. Harris later confessed to law enforcement officers that his testimony was a lie and that he committed the crime. Harris died in prison in 2015.

In the parole hearing Tuesday, Degraffenreid said: “He knew for a fact I was innocent.”

Killian’s granddaughter, Jennie Killian Stuart, also appeared at Tuesday’s parole board hearing.

She said the family was not told about police reopening the case and only learned about it in October from The Herald’s coverage of McCurkin’s parole. The family feels “blindsided” that after four decades police now say the wrong men were convicted, and the family knew nothing about possible wrong convictions, Stuart said. She told the board she wished the family had been told by law enforcement that the case was being looked at again.

Stuart told the parole board that she knows both Degraffenreid and McCurkin because they are about her age and she went to school with them, and that both men had been in trouble with the law before they were charged with killing her grandfather. Court records back that up – McClurkin, Degraffenreid and Harris all pleaded guilty in 1973 to armed robbery in crimes that happened the same month that Claude Killian was murdered after being robbed for a roll of quarters.

Stuart also told the parole board that the issue of concern over the case being re-opened is “not racial” but the family being shocked that after so long the case is now in flux again.

When McClurkin was paroled in October, Underwood said he was sorry for the Killian family having to go through the case being re-opened. However, it is the duty of police to arrest and help convict the right people for crimes, even if it is 40 years later, Underwood said.

After the hearing, Stuart said her family fully supports freeing both men – if the court system can show they are innocent through facts presented in court. Also, Stuart said she “cannot even begin to understand” what it was like for both men to serve four decades in prison if they were wrongly convicted.

“If they are innocent, I have no problem with them being released,” Stuart said.

McClurkin said Tuesday after finding out Degraffenreid was paroled: “I am so thankful that Ray Charles has been paroled. He deserves it just like I deserved it.”

McClurkin thanked the police and Chester community for their prayers and hopes that the courts will now work to vacate the convictions of both he and Degraffenreid.

“I thank the Chester sheriff, and all the people who believe in me and us,” McClurkin said,

Both men are paroled, which means they are still considered convicted killers.

It remains unclear when there will be a new hearing to seek exoneration for both, but their lawyers have said that will happen soon. Legal experts have said the men, if exonerated, deserve compensation from the state for wrongful imprisonment.

As for Degraffenreid, it remains unclear if he will be capable of living outside a place where he has professional care for his mental condition. Parole board members Henry Eldridge and Karen Walto each said Degraffenreid deserves his parole and freedom but must be released with a plan acceptable to state mental health providers.

Parole board testimony Tuesday showed Degraffenreid is legally disabled and will receive disability benefits the rest of his life to pay for his care after he leaves prison. Degraffenreid said in the parole hearing that his 1977 trial was not fair, and that “After forty years in prison, I deserve a place to make me and my family and a few good friends feel good.”

The last words Degraffenreid said to the parole board Tuesday were: “I served my time. I am ready to go.”

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