Wrongfully jailed for 38 years, Fred Clay rebuilds his life in Lowell

Fred Clay
At age 17, Fred Clay was sentenced to life in prison without parole. 38 years later, his conviction was thrown out, and now he's trying to rebuild his life. Photo: Meredith Nierman/WGBH.

Hypnosis helped send Fred Clay to prison almost 40 years ago when police used the now-discredited technique to sharpen the fuzzy memory of a witness in Clay’s trial for the murder of a taxi driver.

Just over a year ago, that conviction was thrown out by a superior court judge in Boston, freeing Clay after 38 years behind bars. (Story continues below.)

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Even though Massachusetts law calls for immediate services and monetary compensation for wrongly convicted men and women, Clay’s newly-won freedom quickly turned into a struggle for basic survival without any support from the state that convicted him in 1981, in a trial that appears bizarre in hindsight.

Just a few weeks after turning 16 and living with a foster family, Clay was arrested and charged as an adult for the murder of a cab driver in Roslindale. A witness named Richard Dwyer told Boston police that he saw three black males climb into a taxi in Boston’s Combat Zone and identified one of them. But he couldn’t identify Clay until a police detective put Dwyer under hypnosis.

“I could picture the scene was at that night in question, and it was very clear to me, was almost like a TV screen,” Dwyer said at Clay’s trial, which was covered by CBS News.

Famed newscaster Walter Cronkite reported on growing concern in America that the use of hypnosis in criminal investigations was “undermining” the bedrock of the justice system: truth.

Such doubts did nothing to spare Clay. At age 17, five-feet four-inches tall and just over 100 pounds, he was sentenced to life in state prison without parole.

Fred Clay booking photo 1979
Fred Clay’s booking photo from his arrest in 1979. Photo provided by Clay’s legal counsel.

“I was scared out of my mind. You can’t even buy a pack of cigarettes but you can go to a state prison for natural life,” he said. “They have a lot of people in prison that was taking advantage of new guys coming in, especially young guys. They had (what) they called booty bandits — guys raping people and stabbing you.”

About a dozen years into his prison sentence, visits from his relatives slowed to a few a year or sometimes none at all. Clay eventually made friends with an older inmate, another lifer, named Rosevelt Pickett, who encouraged him to sign up with a church group that sent young ministers into Bay State prison in Norfolk.

When the Rev. Fred Small asked parishioners at his church in Littleton if anyone wanted to volunteer to make friends with a prisoner, a software engineer named Doran Dibble jumped at the chance.

“You go into this place, double rolls of barbed wire, dogs, guards. I know nothing about this man’s life, his, his background, what he deals with,” said Dibble. “At the end, I said, ‘I obviously don’t know what I’m doing here, but if it’s OK with you, I’d like to come back.’”

What impressed Dibble was how Fred Clay was dealing with life in prison. The two men hit it off so well that Dibble did something very unusual: Not even convinced yet that Fred Clay was innocent, he brought his little kids along — a five- and an eight-year-old — to visit Clay in prison.

“I wanted this man in my children’s lives because of what he was modeling,” said Dibble. “One of the amazing things for me is, given his circumstances — we’re talking life without parole — his resilience, determination (and) his decency through all that. It’s a model to me. He didn’t hate the establishment. We’re white. He didn’t care.”

Over the next 17 years, Dibble, often with his wife Jacki and their kids, visited Clay every two or three months. The trips from the Dibble’s home in Westford down to the prison in Norfolk would up take up more than half a day and always ended the same way.

“We’d all pile back in the car when our visit was over and it was just dead silence in the car because that’s where it really hit everybody,” said Jacki Dibble. “We’d walk out of there, under the barbed wire. We get to go home, and he doesn’t. And it was just, nobody would say anything on the way home.”

Fred Clay and the Dibbles
While in prison serving a life sentence, which was later overturned, Fred Clay was introduced to Jacki (L) and Doran (R) Dibble. Over the next 17 years, the Dibbles and their children visited Clay every two to three months. Photo: Meredith Nierman/WGBH.

The friendship formed with the Dibble family even astounds Clay, who wondered, “How many families that you met are willing to bring their kids into prison to visit a prisoner?”

Years later, a party in Belmont in 2011 launched Clay’s path to freedom. Rev. Small ran into someone he hadn’t seen in years: Lisa Kavanaugh, the new head of a program at the state public defenders’ office taking on innocence cases. He told her about Fred Clay.

“I’ve always felt vaguely horrified that it would take a coincidence like this to bring someone like Fred whose case is so compelling in the door. Once he was on my radar screen it was really clear that the case was deeply problematic,” she said.

Kavanaugh and her team worked nearly six years with Clay to get his murder conviction overturned, pointing to the use of hypnosis and questionable tactics police used to convince another witness to identify Clay as the shooter. The conviction integrity program run by the Suffolk District Attorney also worked on the case for Clay’s exoneration.

“The bottom line was that anyone could look at this and say, ‘This would never ever happen in today’s world,’” said Kavanaugh.

It was the first time in nine years that the Suffolk prosecutor’s office agreed to a vacated conviction in a case not involving DNA.

In early August last year, Clay and a group of his supporters cheered outside the Boston courtroom as he stepped into freedom and talked to the media about his long wait for justice.

“A long time coming, to quote Sam Cooke, a long time coming,” Clay said.

The jubilation soon gave way to the reality of earning income and finding cheap shelter. Clay had quit school in the 8th grade and had spent decades in prison, which made his search for work more difficult.

Three months out of prison Fred Clay was still jobless, surviving on food stamps and some of the money raised by his supporters. Filling out job applications meant accounting for the 38-year gap in his employment history. And while Clay’s conviction was overturned by a judge, an employer checking for a criminal background would still see his arrest for murder.

Clay teamed up with volunteers at Thrive Communities, a Lowell nonprofit that mentors people coming out of prison. Kim Yeasir, who heads up the nonprofit, pointed out that he was not without marketable skills.

“You can buff a floor better than probably 90 percent of the maintenance people out there,” she told him.

By mid-December, Clay was loading boxes for UPS in Chelmsford but just getting there took him an hour, walking three miles to the jobsite and often in the street because of snowbanks covering sidewalks. Clay, who never learned to drive, said transit buses in Lowell are unreliable.

After all that effort and risk to get to his first job out of prison, there was no guarantee that Clay would get a full-day’s work. If UPS misjudged the flow of packages to load, workers were cut loose.

“They come into the truck and let you go, which they did to me like four times,” he said. “Sometimes it was kind of farther into my shift. Other times it was before I even got an hour in, they was sending me home.”

Still, Clay’s determination to work may have helped convince his boss to give him the job he still has — precision-grinding aviation parts at a metal shop in South Lowell.

The job is low-wage at $12 an hour and not always full-time. But it is just a 15-minute walk from his home, and he’s grateful to the employer.

“They realized that I had a raw deal, and they want to give me a break. They’ve been real nice,” he said. “I like to work. I’m dependable, [and] I just want a chance to prove that to people. And they gave me a chance to do that.”

As good as it feels to earn some money, Clay’s minimum wage paycheck is no match for Lowell’s rising rents. Median rent in the city — $1,100 — would eat up more than 80 percent of his take-home pay. All he could afford at first was a bedroom in a sober house for about $700 a month. But he doesn’t have addiction problems, and living there reminded him of a place he’d rather forget.

“I felt like I was still in prison. I’m giving urine tests and having cops run up inside of the room searching your stuff,” he said.

The last weekend in April, Clay moved out of the sober house with the help of Fred Small and Doran Dibble. Less than a mile away in South Lowell, his new home is just a bedroom in a basement with no kitchen, only a microwave. At $650 a month, it’s a bit cheaper and much smaller.

“My own private bathroom — ain’t got to share with nobody,” Clay said. “Perfect, my own little space [and] peace of mind.”

Clay said that taking the job at the metal shop meant his food stamps were cut back to $15 a month. And some weeks, the shop only needs him for 32 hours so he wonders if should he try for a second job.

“They’ve been asking people to take a day off from work. Is it going to turn (from) taking a day off to being laid off?” he said. “I just want to set up some sort of plan.”

But so far, the state of Massachusetts has made no effort to help with his post-prison plan.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included a quote that incorrectly stated how many convictions Suffolk County prosecutors have agreed to vacate without DNA evidence. While Fred Clay’s conviction was the first case in nine years, the Suffolk prosecutor’s office said there were non-DNA exonerations in nine other cases between 2000 and 2008.

This story was co-published on WGBHnews.org. The radio series aired on WGBH 98.7 from September 24 to 27, 2018.