This has been a banner year for the Massachusetts Bail Fund, a charity that pays the bail for prisoners who can’t afford it. The nationwide protest movement spurred by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota has brought a flood of donations, empowering fund officials to pay much higher bails than they ever could before.
But the group is facing backlash from its own supporters after it posted $15,000 bail to release a Level 3 sex offender who then allegedly raped and tried to strangle a Quincy woman within three weeks. Shawn McClinton had two previous convictions and a pending rape charge when the group freed him from the Nashua Street jail in July.
On Friday, a student group at Boston University canceled a fund-raising concert for the Bail Fund scheduled for Aug. 7, saying they did not realize that the charity was freeing people accused of serious crimes.
“We apologize for our ignorance about the Mass. Bail Fund and for triggering any trauma while recently supporting the fund,” said the school’s radio station, WTBU.
Some Bail Fund donors reported online that they believed they were helping raise bail for peaceful protesters, or people charged with low-level offenses and being held on low, or relatively low bail. In fact, the group has paid up to $85,000 to bail out one suspect charged with attempted murder.
Attorney General Maura Healey criticized the Bail Fund and said people from her office would contact leaders to discuss how the group is spending donors’ money.
“It was dangerous and irresponsible for the Massachusetts Bail Fund to post bail for McClinton, who was facing serious felony charges and has a violent criminal past,” said Healey, who oversees nonprofit groups statewide, in a statement.
Officials at the Bail Fund have not been answering questions. Atara Rich-Shea, the fund’s unpaid executive director, has been on vacation and unavailable since early July. Her sister, Amanda Loring, who has raised money for the Bail Fund, declined comment.
The Bail Fund, which has a motto of “Free Them All,” argues that cash bail should be eliminated entirely because it discriminates against the poor, forcing them to remain in jail even before they are convicted.
If prosecutors believe someone is dangerous, fund officials argue, they should ask a judge to declare them dangerous and order them held for a period of time. But, in practice, prosecutors often seek high bail for the release of people charged with the most serious crimes or with long histories of defaults.
Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said her office did not seek a dangerousness hearing to hold McClinton without bail in part because prosecutors feared the hearing itself could traumatize the victim.
As recently as January, the fund was posting bails of no more than $500, but a large influx of donations this year allowed the group to pay more. On Twitter, the Bail Fund told potential donors that it would post bail of up to $5,000, but, in recent weeks, the fund routinely exceeded that figure.
The Boston Globe reported last month that the Bail Fund put up $85,000 to free Karmau Cotton-Landers, a man accused of shooting someone in broad daylight on Boston Common in April. Other defendants recently freed by the Bail Fund include Walker Browning, accused of robbing five women, two at knifepoint; David Privette, facing charges of holding up a gas station at gunpoint; and Otis Walker, who had been held since late 2018 on three counts of child rape. The three were being held on bails ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.
But the new rape and assault charges against McClinton, 39, last week sparked immediate criticism of the Bail Fund, which had paid his bail in July.
Boston police Commissioner William Gross said he was “absolutely appalled” that someone with McClinton’s history would be freed. “We’re getting to a point in society where we’re giving more credence to criminals than victims. We’re talking about violent offenders. Why would you bail someone who committed rapes?”
When the Bail Fund frees someone, Rollins wrote in a statement, defendants have no incentive after release because the money is coming from a third party rather than a family member or friend.
“The bail fund isn’t a friend or family member of the accused,” said Rollins in a statement. “There is no discussion on the ride home of ‘What the hell were you doing?’ or ‘What in the world have you done?’ There is no pressure applied to the accused by the Bail Fund. Rather their mantra is ‘Free Them All.‘ ”
She said the Bail Fund’s willingness to free McClinton was “the act of a coward . . . I would have so much more respect for the Bail Fund if they had bailed him out and then let him stay in one of their homes.”
Anne Donohue, the BU radio station’s faculty adviser and a BU journalism professor, said a majority of the radio station’s executive board members decided this “was not a cause they wanted to get behind.”
“The notion of providing bond for folks who are in for heavy crimes is crazy and needs to be reformed — a serial rapist and sex offender? The DA’s office made a mistake in allowing him to be eligible for bail. But once that decision was made, the bail fund has some discretion in where they allocate their funds — whom they decide to bail. WTBU also has some discretion in what causes they support.“
Some in the BU community wanted the concert to go on. “This is an awful decision,” wrote someone on Twitter. “You should reconsider. The Bail Fund means people aren’t being held in jail before their guilt or innocence is decided.”
Another tweeted “Revoke the cancellation.”
But the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center was incensed over McClinton’s release.
“By posting bail for the defendant without regard to the charges he was facing, and his prior convictions for similar behavior, the Massachusetts Bail Fund showed an incomprehensible disregard for public safety,” said Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, in a written statement.
Even the brother of the Bail Fund’s executive director opposes their efforts, calling his sister’s decision to bail out prisoners facing violent criminal charges “morally bankrupt” and “stupid.”
“I have no idea what she’s thinking, and she has refused to explain her decisions to any reporters this far,” Alex Rich-Shea wrote online.
“I think it’s completely morally and intellectually bankrupt to absolve Atara Rich-Shea of her responsibility to use common sense when bailing out violent criminals.”
McClinton, who was convicted of rape in 1994 and 2007 and has a pending rape case in Suffolk Superior Court, was ordered held without bail Thursday by Judge Lisa Grant of Dorchester District Court.
Todd Wallack of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.