PHOENIX — The first Massachusetts man to stand was Ray Champagne, his head slightly bowed, right hand raised skyward. The ballroom crowd roared to celebrate his release after 41 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Others freed from Bay State prisons followed: Frances Choy (17 years), Robert Foxworth (29 years), Raymond Gaines (46 years), and four more. The newly exonerated or freed from across the country climbed to their feet one by one to be recognized for the years they spent wrongfully behind bars.
111 people; 2,459 years.
Last came James Watson, who, at 6-foot-6, shot up like a man with a new life. The 63-year-old, whom prosecutors in Suffolk County once sought to execute, pumped his fists and basked in the applause.
“It feels like a trillion bucks,” said Watson, who served 41 years in prison for murder before his exoneration in 2020. “It’s joyful. It’s sad. It’s painful, and it made me realize it’s not over.” The struggle is not over, he meant.
The wrongly incarcerated gathered by the hundreds earlier this month at an Arizona resort for the Innocence Network’s first conference since 2019. The name-by-name introductions of the newcomers to this fellowship underscored the national momentum for vacating wrongful convictions: 111 people in attendance had recently been freed from prison, a tally much higher than conferences past, organizers said.
Massachusetts had an outsized presence, with only three other states sending more representatives. In the past three years, at least 22 people have been freed from Bay State prisons, a spike driven in part by aggressive efforts of former Suffolk district attorney Rachael Rollins, whose administration challenged the traditional dynamics of the criminal justice system and worked to root out past injustice.
Now on the outside, the growing ranks of exonerees have formed a unique fraternity. With a bond forged by the horror of being wrongfully imprisoned, the group of predominantly Black and Latino men have helped one another navigate the difficult transition back into the society that left them behind.
They have gathered for sirloin burgers, hot dogs, and ice cream at Kimball Farm in Westford, gone skydiving with friends suddenly free to choose fear, and given the most recent additions to the club their first cellphones and laptops. During the pandemic, they regularly met online for support-group-like sessions to talk candidly about their triumphs, their feelings of being overwhelmed at new freedom, and the unexpected struggles of life outside an institution.
“Every month, whether it’s Zoom or we go out, I look them all in the face and I let them know I love them,” said Foxworth, who was freed in 2020 and knows many of his fellow exonerees from prison. “I consider them as an equal to my own brother, because they have been there no matter what.”
The circle includes advocates from the three Boston-based innocence initiatives and a web of lawyers, paralegals, social workers, and investigators who often fought for years to overturn cases. Long after court, the legal teams stick with their former clients, hosting backyard barbecues and making regular phone calls to check in.
Those clients need support because even the toughest survivors struggle. They have described the ongoing pull of some unshakable routines from behind bars, a syndrome dubbed “prison brain.” Without thinking, they have washed their underwear in the shower, eaten their meals defensively fast. They struggled with the weight of glass cups and ceramic plates, and cut their mouths on metal forks. (In prison, they only had paper and plastic.)
They find themselves at 6:30 a.m. or 10 p.m. inexplicably standing at the foot of their beds at home, embarrassed and angry when they realized they were waiting to be counted, as if they were still on lockdown. Making basic choices can trigger anxiety attacks, even for something as simple as shopping for breakfast cereal or toothpaste.
Prison violence conditioned Foxworth to always be prepared to defend himself, a mindset that subconsciously followed him home. When he was first released and living with his mother, she walked into his bedroom and asked, “Rob, where are all my knives?”
Foxworth had hidden one behind the radiator, another at the corner of his bed, and a third in the drop ceiling.
“I was like, ‘What the mess was I doing?’” Foxworth recalled of his unconscious return to his old world of nonstop vigilance. “So I took them all out, cleaned them, and put them all back.”
As the number of freed people grew, a formalized support system took shape through the New England Innocence Project, a small Cambridge-based nonprofit that works pro bono to correct and prevent wrongful convictions. Three Massachusetts men who spent a collective 94 years in prison for crimes they did not commit launched the Exoneree Network in late 2020. The network helps newly freed people find housing, apply for insurance, get medication, learn new technologies, and gain access to mentors who have walked the same path.
“There’s definitely a fellowship component to it, but there is so much more,” said one of the leaders of the network, Sean K. Ellis, who served nearly 22 years in prison, convicted of killing a Boston police detective before being freed and ultimately exonerated because of police and prosecutorial misconduct. “It’s kind of like working with a recovery coach because this person has gone through what I’ve gone through.”
A few months after his release, Ellis recalled, his family sat him down and staged an intervention because he continued to cling to habits ingrained in him during his time behind bars. He was closed-minded, Ellis said, and often thought there was only one way to get through the day.
“I remember saying, ‘I’ve been doing this for the past 22 years in prison and it’s worked for me so why would I just stop doing it now?’” Ellis recalled. “What I didn’t understand was that I had normalized what was abnormal.”
Wrongful conviction cases play out over years and even decades. In Massachusetts, a relatively small proportion of exonerations hinge on DNA testing, according to data collected by The National Registry of Exonerations. The majority of bad convictions here are underpinned by police and prosecutorial misconduct, shoddy detective work, or investigatory techniques that have been discredited.
One Massachusetts exoneree, Gary Cifizzari, served 35 years for a conviction based entirely on the comparison of bitemarks — an evidentiary technique that is no longer considered scientifically sound. Frederick Clay spent 38 years in prison after he was only identified after a witness had been hypnotized by a Boston police officer whose job title was “investigative hypnologist.”
The criminal justice system has often been slow to reckon with mistakes, incompetence, and misconduct. But when a conviction is overturned, freedom can be abrupt for those set loose with little support. After more than four decades in a cage, Ray Champagne said, he won his freedom after a 17-minute court hearing, sending him directly from a cellblock on lockdown at the state’s maximum security prison to the street.
“I haven’t been able to find words to articulate the emotional wonderfulness and terror of that,” Champagne said. “You don’t have a dime and now you’re free. Free to do what? Where do you go? Not everybody has family or friends. What do you do? That’s the fear aspect. How am I going to go to sleep tonight? How am I going to eat?”
In Massachusetts, people wrongly incarcerated for a felony who are exonerated can receive up to $1 million in compensation from the state, but the process is slow. Some have waited a year, or even longer, for money. Some have received less. In the interim, their immediate needs — housing, hunger, health care — can’t wait.
The Exoneree Network has sought to fill that gap. It provides newly freed people $500, a cellphone, and a laptop almost as soon as they walk out of prison. Leaders of the network know that $500 does not go far. They hope to ramp up the budget, which is projected to be $150,000 in 2022.
Organizers believe the annual spending should be $500,000 and that the state should contribute funding because it wrongly incarcerated people, said Radha Natarajan, executive director of the New England Innocence Project. Current funders include The Boston Foundation, Columbus Foundation, Summers-New Family Foundation, and others.
The Exoneree Network is also supported by the innocence programs at the state’s public defender agency and Boston College Law School, which uses staff attorneys and students to remedy erroneous convictions.
The network has hosted technology training provided by Deloitte, offered financial literacy classes, and organized toy drives to help exonerees give Christmas gifts to the children in their lives.
The organization now includes approximately 25 active members, many of whom maintained their innocence while serving decades behind bars. They have been exonerated not by legal technicalities but because judges ruled their convictions were fundamentally unjust.
Witnesses were coerced or coached, or lied. Law enforcement hid evidence that pointed at another perpetrator. DNA identified a different killer. In a few cases, lesser convictions had remained after a murder conviction was overturned. The group includes people who are “free but fighting,” which means judges have released them from prison because of significant problems with their convictions but their cases remain unresolved.
In prison, they leaned on one another when they missed children’s birthdays, grappled with the death of a parent, and toiled side-by-side in the prison law library. Now outside, they support other people’s bids for freedom.
Earlier this year, as Stephen Pina’s bid to overturn his murder conviction gained momentum, two exonerees — Ellis and Darrell Jones — attended the remote court hearings on Zoom.
Then in March when a judge ordered Pina’s release, citing withheld evidence that could have pointed to different culprit, Ellis and Jones were there in the courtroom.
“You know that some people in jail just aren’t supposed to be there,” Jones said moments after Pina walk free. “People say that everybody in jail says they’re innocent, but we know the difference. When you’re really innocent, the language is different.”
Pina has not yet been exonerated and has a key court hearing in May.
After Pina left prison, another exoneree, Robert Foxworth, took him shopping and bought him the latest iPhone. Then Pina was the guest of honor at an Exoneree Network pizza party, draping his arms around his brethren as he posed for a picture with 10 other people freed from Massachusetts prisons.
“The Massachusetts exoneree community has turned out to be a very special community who want to know each other and support each other,” said Lisa M. Kavanaugh, director of the Innocence Program at the Committee for Public Counsel Services. “There’s a sense of interconnectedness.”
That bond played out on a unique field trip of sorts earlier this month. Flanked by his friends, Ray Champagne thought about searches in prison as he navigated security at Logan International Airport, eager to board his first flight since 1974.
“I just want to see the sun dancing on top of the clouds,” said Champagne, who was one of nearly four dozen New Englanders traveling to the Innocence Network’s conference in Phoenix.
Champagne settled into his window seat with boyish enthusiasm, snapping pictures of desert mountains during the descent into Arizona. In all, the plane carried a half dozen people freed from prison after being wrongly incarcerated for more than 150 years.
The conference drew more than 800 people from across the country, including lawyers, investigators, and 205 people who had been freed from prison.
“It’s really good having a second family,” said Christopher “Omar” Martinez as he stood with his former attorneys from the Boston College Innocence Program who helped free him after nearly 20 years in prison. “It’s a family that supports you, a family that cares about you, a family that shows you that you are part of them.”
The conference gave exonerees a chance to learn from one another how to cope with the simmering anger from being wrongfully imprisoned. Many exonerees are seeking a purpose, looking for ways to channel that energy in a positive vein.
“That translates into not focusing on something you lost, but on building something,” said Natarajan of the New England Innocence Project. “It gives what happened to them purpose.”
Darrell Jones strode through the crowd as a veteran exoneree, having walked out of Massachusetts state prison in 2017 after 32 years. Jones bellowed the word, “Freedom!” when he spotted one of the new guys, James Watson.
“FREE-dom and sunshine!” Watson sang in response.
Nearby, Pedro Valentin described how recent, monthly Zoom sessions with exonerees in Massachusetts helped his anxiety and fear. Valentin’s legal limbo fueled his unease, as did an electronic monitor on his ankle. The court granted him permission to travel to Phoenix, but his case is still pending despite his release in 2020 after nearly 30 years in prison.
When conference organizers first asked everyone recently freed from prison to stand and receive recognition, Valentin could not do it. After all he’d been through, the moment was too much. He slipped out of the ballroom.
Later over lunch, Valentin fell into an conversation with a stranger, Joseph Frey of Wisconsin, who was exonerated by DNA in 2013.
“I know how hard it was when I got out myself,” Frey said. “I got to let these new guys know they can make it too even though it seems insurmountable. We as a community can help.”
Sitting in the sun, Valentin thought about how hard he should push himself when he feels overwhelmed. He considered what lay ahead in court . And he thought about a future outside prison.
“It’s like being born again,” Valentin said.