The City of Boston has agreed to pay $3.1 million to a man who served 38 years in prison for a murder that prosecutors eventually concluded he did not commit, marking the city’s largest payout for police misconduct in years.
The city’s settlement this summer with 57-year-old Frederick Clay is a capstone to Clay’s nearly four-decade fight to establish his innocence. He was exonerated three years ago after investigators determined that a shoddy Boston Police Department investigation, reliant on a witness who was hypnotized by the police, led to his wrongful conviction.
The settlement — which has not been publicly announced — is one of 23 legal claims involving Boston police officers that resulted in payouts by the city in the last five years. The city has spent about $4 million to resolve the claims, with five settlements of $100,000 or more, according to city data obtained by the Globe.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh declined to comment directly on the resolution of the legal claims. Clay and his attorney, John Barter, also declined to comment.
Jeffrey S. Gutman, a George Washington University professor who studies compensation for the wrongfully convicted, said settlements like Clay’s are not just compensatory, they also have the potential to spur officials to examine past mistakes and reform their agencies.
“The hope," Gutman said, "is that the better angels would take these cases to heart and truly examine and cure the practices that led to these incidents.”
The Clay settlement comes amid intense scrutiny of law enforcement agencies across the nation, including the Boston Police Department, and past, systemic cases of abuse. Calls for an overhaul of police practices and policy began in earnest after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police and have continued with a stream of high-profile misconduct settlements.
The City of Louisville, Ky., in September agreed to pay $12 million to the family of emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor, whose killing by police sparked a fresh wave of nationwide protests. In 2015, Chicago officials agreed to pay the family of Laquan McDonald $5 million after he was shot to death by police.
The Clay settlement represents the bulk of Boston’s misconduct payouts over five years and rivals a 2009 payment of $3.25 million to a man who spent 18 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of raping three women in Brighton in 1980.
Boston police arrested Clay in 1979, shortly after his 16th birthday, accusing him in the murder of cab driver Jeffrey S. Boyajian. He was convicted two years later and sentenced to life in prison.
A Suffolk Superior Court judge vacated Clay’s conviction after investigators found several problems with the initial police investigation. One witness had identified Clay as the suspect only after being hypnotized by police, a practice that has now been widely discredited. Investigators had also determined the shooter was lefthanded; Clay is righthanded.
Clay sued the state for wrongful conviction following his release from prison. Massachusetts paid him $1 million, the maximum allowed by state law. The city settled its case in June.
Other recent city settlements were made with alleged victims of excessive force, records show.
The city paid Sharon McDonald $250,000 in 2018 to resolve a lawsuit for an allegedly wrongful arrest following a robbery at a clothing store.
In another case, Alex Corbett said he was waiting in line outside of Whiskey’s Bar in the Back Bay in 2012 when Officer Ludwig Castillo slugged him in the face. Corbett was later arrested for disorderly conduct, but the charges were dropped. The city paid Corbett $29,000 to resolve his federal lawsuit.
Boston paid Robert Greene $75,000 in 2015 after he alleged that officers had assaulted him after he was detained while walking through Copley Square.
The Boston Police Department declined to comment.
A recent report by the Boston Police Reform Task Force called for sweeping changes at the nation’s oldest police department. Walsh, who commissioned the task force following widespread protests of Floyd’s death in late May, has said that he’ll do whatever he can to carry out the recommendations.
But initiatives like the proposed creation of an independent office of civilian oversight could cost millions. And in a tight budget year, the mayor’s pledge may be complicated by the expense of remedying claims arising from alleged police misconduct.
Civil rights attorney Howard Friedman, who has handled several high-profile police misconduct cases, said he believes Boston’s police leaders are working to improve the department. But the number of settlements remains a good barometer for measuring their progress, he said: “If you have better supervision, you’ll have less of these cases.”
Vernal Coleman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @vernalcoleman.