Convicted at age 16, man freed 38 years later as innocent man

Frederick Clay at the time of his arrest (left) and today at age 53.

Thirty-eight years after being convicted for a murder based in part on witness testimony given under hypnosis, Frederick Clay walked out of Suffolk Superior Court on Tuesday a free man.

Clay, who was barely 16 when he was first arrested, was released after the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office vacated his conviction determining that it “cannot say with sufficient certainty that justice was done.”

Clay, now 53, hugged his attorney and told the court he was innocent of the crime. He emerged from a courtroom into the arms of his supporters and attorneys.

“No amount of apologies is going to bring back 38 years of my life,” he said. “But I would say if they would recognize I am innocent as opposed to recognizing that I just didn’t get a fair trial, that’s what I was hoping for, actual innocence. The basis of me being free is I am actually innocent.”

Clay said he was eager to visit the grave of his mother and was also hungry for a steak and cheese sandwich.

“I’ve been locked up since I was 16, now I am 53 so there’s a lot of life I gotta make up on,” he said.

The state motion says that “after scrupulous examination of the evidence,” and “unusual circumstances of the defendant’s trial,” including evidence that eyewitnesses were hypnotized, prosecutors supported Clay’s motion to a new trial. Prosecutors then said they wouldn’t file a new motion to prosecute.

The victim’s brother, Jerry Boyajian, expressed support for the decision. “Because of his testimony at the hearing, I began to doubt what he (Clay) did,” Boyajian said. “He needed to live the rest of his life as a free man.”

Clay’s case is the first one vacated by the Suffolk County’s so-called Conviction Integrity Program, a panel created in 2012 to “identify and correct past wrongful convictions” and prevent future ones.

At least 225 inmates have had their cases overturned by some 29 similar programs based out of prosecutors’ office across the country, according to the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of California, Irvine. The number of “integrity” units has grown to at least 29 nationwide and are responsible for an increasing number of exonerations, 70 in 2016 alone, according to the registry.

Jake Wark, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s office, said while Clay’s case is the first to be examined by the new integrity unit it is at least the fifth conviction to be reversed after a post-conviction investigation during District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s administration. “As prosecutors our duty is to the interest of justice and not to convictions,” he said.  “If there is a reasonable doubt that a jury might have reached a different conclusion with all the facts available to them it is our obligation to reverse that conviction.”

Clay sought to open his case last year, alleging among other things that new research poked holes in the eyewitness evidence against him. He was convicted of a November 1979 murder of a Boston taxi cab driver, Jeffrey Boyajian. Prosecutors offered no physical evidence to convict him, instead depending on the testimony of two eye witnesses whose identification was aided by hypnosis.

Clay already was supposed to be released this month following a Supreme Judicial Court in August 2016 that ruled that his constitutional rights were violated when the Massachusetts Parole Board applied rules from a 2012 law to him requiring a super majority of the board to release him. In 2015, four parole members voted in favor of his parole.

Clay’s attorney Lisa Kavanaugh said that she filed the motion to re-open Clay’s case, because although he was already getting out, he deserved to leave an innocent man. “Being on parole for the rest of his life for a crime he didn’t commit seemed like a gross injustice to me,” said Kavanaugh, director of the Innocence Program at the state Committee for Public Counsel Services.

Kavanaugh is pushing for passage of state legislation that would provide immediate financial help to people who were wrongfully convicted. Currently under state law, men and women whose convictions were overturned have to prove their innocence by “clear and convincing” evidence before accessing up to $500,000 in compensation, a process that can take years.

Clay, she said, will be leaving with about $1,000 he has earned while incarcerated and another $2,000 provided to him by a private fund for the wrongfully convicted.

“This person, who has been in prison since he was a teenager, has no job experience and no education,’’ she said. “When people get out of prison they have immediate needs.”

Clay is the second Massachusetts man in two days to have his murder conviction vacated after Norfolk County prosecutors filed a motion Monday to not re-try Frederick Weichel for a 1980 murder in Braintree unless new evidence surfaces.

NECIR intern Ines Kagubare contributed to this report.