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Frederick Clay freed after 38 years wrongfully imprisoned

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Frederick Clay freed after 38 years wrongfully imprisoned
Frederick Clay (Photo: PHOT0: COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF FREDERICK CLAY)

A man was released from prison last week after spending nearly four decades locked up for a crime that he always maintained he did not commit. Frederick Clay was 16 when he was accused of murdering a cab driver. Now at age 53, he is free.

Flawed investigational practices and evidence standards led to Clay’s conviction for a 1979 murder in Roslindale’s Archdale public housing development. On Tuesday last week, the conviction was vacated in a Suffolk County court.

Clay’s conviction rested on two eyewitnesses. One was a developmentally delayed 24-year-old with the mental age of ten, according to information from the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS). The witness initially said he could not make out the murder suspects he viewed at night from the window of his second-story apartment. The police on the case repeatedly showed the witness a photo array of suspects, and told him they were fairly certain who the guilty parties were and that they were depicted in the array. The police also told the witness that if he helped them, the city would pay to relocate him and his family out of the projects where he had just witnessed the murder.

The second witness provided vague suspect descriptions that altered after police subjected him to hypnosis — a practice now largely discredited, according to the CPCS. Some statements from witnesses also better described other potential perpetrators, who were not investigated. In addition, Clay was right-handed, while the shooter was left-handed. At the time of trial, Clay was 18 and was tried and convicted as an adult.

Throughout the case and his 38-year incarceration, Clay maintained that he was innocent — something a prison board once cited as the reason to deny him parole.

Innocence Program

Clay may not be the last person to suffer a wrongful conviction, but organizations are working to identify and right such wrongs. Proposed legislation could make their work easier.

Tucked within a division of the state’s public defender’s office is the Innocence Program, a unit dedicated to investigating and defending those who may have suffered wrongful convictions. Lisa Kavanaugh, Innocence Program director, served as Clay’s attorney and filed for a new trial, along with co-counsel Jeff Harris of Good, Cormier, Schneider and Fried.

The Innocence Program examines cases throughout Massachusetts. Its team comprises a director, an attorney, a paralegal and a part-time investigator. The state currently pays salaries for most of the employees, and the team continually applies for federal grants to support needs, such as hiring of additional investigators and experts to work specific cases, said Kavanaugh. The Innocence Program is also a member of the broader Innocence Project network.

Among the challenges the program faces is difficulty tapping public resources. The court is required to supply financial aid for assembling wrongful conviction arguments, but qualifying for that money requires demonstrating there is a strong case for a new trial — which essentially is the work the aid is needed to support, Kavanaugh said.

Another issue is that the Innocence Program only hears of cases when an individual files a request with the organization, or if an attorney refers the case. That requires the attorney or individual to be aware of new scientific thinking or procedures that could invalidate the case against the convicted, and to be aware of the Innocence Program. When Clay was incarcerated, this resource did not exist, and he spent almost two decades without an attorney looking at his case, Kavanaugh said. She learned of Clay’s plight through happenstance and unusual channels — she ran into a reverend friend of a friend who was familiar with Clay from prison visits.

Becoming proactive

A bill sponsored by Sen. William Brownsberger, An Act to Establish a Forensic Science Commission, would call upon the state to handle more of the work of identifying questionable cases, rather than relying on individuals seeking out help. An independent commission would be charged with investigating and auditing the forensic science, technique or analysis used in a criminal matter in any cases where new investigation is deemed useful or where any of the procedures used or the conduct in the case have been called into question. For instance, when new science emerged debunking the use of hypnotism on witnesses, a case such as Clay’s that involved hypnotism would have to be reviewed.

This commission would meet four or more times a year and include among its membership several people appointed by criminal justice organizations, as well as people with scientific expertise in fields such as forensics, cognitive bias and statistics. To give the commission independence, the scientific members would have no ongoing connection to government forensic labs.

“[This legislation] removes the issue of chance — the chance that you’ll end up with a lawyer who is aware that this is an issue, or that you even have the wherewithal to ask for a lawyer,” Kavanaugh said, noting that language barriers and mental health issues are especially likely to prevent someone from knowing they can ask for help. “[The bill also] takes responsibility on a systemic level for these types of issues when they occur.”

Released … now what?

For many exiting prison, the parole process involves developing a plan and identifying supports for successful re-entry into society. But those who serve their full sentence or are released because they never should have been imprisoned may be on their own once they walk out the prison door.

“When [Clay] was released, we literally took him and bought him clothes,” Kavanaugh said. “Otherwise… He’d have just the clothes on his back and nothing else. He’s getting out without any restrictions on his liberty — that’s a wonderful thing. But it also means he’s not entitled to any support services that would have been there with parole. You’re let out with a pat on the back and whatever money you have in your pocket. ”

In one way, Clay is lucky — before he was exonerated, he was due to be paroled, and the post-release program he had selected agreed to admit him for at least six months, despite his change in status. While that program focuses on some of the emotional aspects of transitioning back into society, other supporters have come forward to volunteer assistance on life practicalities such as teaching Clay to drive, open a bank account and obtain and learn to use a cell phone. The parole program may also help connect him with job training resources.

In Massachusetts, those who are wrongfully convicted of a felony have a right to seek compensation from the state of up to $500,000. However, the process for attaining this is often more complicated than getting the conviction overturned: They must prove not that the vacated conviction was flawed or insufficient, but rather that they are definitively innocent. There also is a strict timeline for bringing suit, according to the New England Innocence Project, a nonprofit representing people in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Even when people managed to win some compensation, they rarely if ever receive the full amount provided for under the law, and it may not arrive for years while they wage their legal case to receive it, Kavanaugh said.

Making compensation attainable

An Act Updating the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Law, sponsored by Sen. Pat Jehlen, targets the problem of barriers to compensation and support. Under the proposal, claimants with promising cases would be provided with supports without having to wait for the trial’s completion. Such claimants would get $50,000 and may also receive support for emotional and physical needs and free educational services from public colleges or universities.

Kavanaugh said the bill is a critical step.

“You don’t just put your life on hold for the two years it takes to litigate a compensation suit,” she noted. 
Jehlen’s bill also calls for wrongful conviction records to be expunged, not merely sealed, and for the state to pick up legal fees for those who win their cases.

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