Frederick Clay became a man in prison.
He was 16 when he was arrested in 1979 for the murder of a cab driver in Roslindale. A jury convicted him two years later, after an eyewitness identified him as the gunman who shot Jeffrey Boyajian, 28, during a robbery with two accomplices at the Archdale housing development.
On Tuesday, Clay walked out of Suffolk Superior Court flanked by his lawyers with his arms raised and his conviction vacated, after prosecutors said during a dramatic hearing that they would not retry him for the crime.
The prosecutors pointed to numerous problems with the original government witnesses. Police had used the now-discredited practice of hypnotising a witness in order to identify Clay as the suspect.
An investigation also found that the shooter was lefthanded — and that Clay is righthanded.
“It’s just a long time coming, to quote Sam Cooke,” Clay, now 53, told reporters. “This is the first time I’ve walked without shackles, so it’s strange.”
Clay even had support from Boyajian’s younger brother, Jerry, who attended the hearing and told reporters afterward that justice had “absolutely” been done Tuesday.
“The fact that [Clay] spent two-thirds of his life behind bars for something he didn’t do is just horrific,” Boyajian said. He recalled that as “a nerd” growing up, he sometimes clashed with his slain older brother, whom he described as “a jock.”
“But I loved him,” Boyajian said. “He was funny. I played along with him as a kid.”
Earlier in Courtroom 906, court officers removed shackles from Clay as he listened to Assistant District Attorney Donna Jalbert Patalano tell Judge Christine Roach that prosecutors did not oppose his request for a new trial.
Immediately after Roach granted that motion, Patalano said her office would not retry Clay, vacating his murder conviction and setting him free as dozens of supporters watched. Some held back tears as Clay hugged his attorneys, Lisa Kavanaugh and Jeffrey Harris.
“I had to relive the moment, just like the victim’s family had to relive the moment,” Clay told Roach before the judge freed him. “I truly am sorry for Mr. Boyajian’s loss of his life. . . . I did not commit this crime.”
Clay was granted parole last year and had been slated for release next week, but he sought a new trial to clear his name.
Patalano told Roach there would be no second trial and that “we cannot be confident that justice was done” when a jury convicted Clay decades ago. A codefendant, James Watson, was also convicted of murder and remains incarcerated. Watson was 20 years old when he was arrested for the slaying.
The events played out before dawn on Nov. 16, 1979. According to District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office, Boyajian picked up three black men, two very tall and one very short, in his cab in Boston’s Combat Zone and took them to Archdale, where one of the assailants shot him five times in the head. No third suspect was ever apprehended.
Another cabbie told police that three men of a similar description approached him earlier that night for a ride to Archdale. After undergoing hypnosis by investigators, the second cab driver said he was “absolutely certain” Clay was among the trio, Conley’s office said.
Another witness was a developmentally disabled man who initially said he could not make out suspects from the window of his Archdale apartment but later identified Clay as the shooter, Conley’s office and Clay’s legal team said.
Kavanaugh, Clay’s attorney, said after the hearing that there were “profound problems” with the investigation, including the fact that the man who saw the shooting made observations from 75 feet away in darkness.
And the officer who handled the photo array “had a strong belief that the people identified by the hypnotized witness were the correct suspects” and conveyed that belief to the shooting witness, Kavanaugh said.
She said Tuesday’s resolution was thrilling. “I’ve never had another moment quite like it,” Kavanaugh said. “This is really extraordinary.”
Prosecutors said the Conviction Integrity unit in Conley’s office has been reviewing a number of old cases, including Clay’s, for several years. The decision to vacate the conviction followed a request by Clay’s legal team to retry the case as well as a “detailed examination of the evidence at trial.”
“At the end of the day, I simply was not convinced that justice was done,” Conley said. “I know that Mr. Clay’s supporters would prefer if I were able to say that he was actually innocent. And I cannot say that with absolute certainty. . . . There is certainly evidence that points to his innocence,” including the shooter’s lefthandedness. “That troubles me,” Conley said.
Clay was asked if he wanted an apology from police or prosecutors assigned to then-district attorney Newman Flanagan who put him away. He always said he was at a foster home when Boyajian was killed. “No amount of apology is going to bring back 38 years out of my life,” Clay said. “About the challenges that’s ahead of me, I got goosebumps about that. I was hoping that my mother was here, but she passed away in ’83. She was around when I first got arrested, so it would be nice for her to be here . . . [for] this moment here. I’m not happy about that, but maybe she’s turning over in her grave.”
“With joy,” Kavanaugh said.
“Yeah,” Clay said. “With joy.”