Frederick Clay freed after 38 years wrongfully imprisoned

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 8/16/2017, 10:02 a.m.
A man was released from prison last week after spending nearly four decades locked up for a crime that he ...

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.