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Raymond Champagne, who served 41 years for wrongful conviction, died 30 months after winning freedom

Mr. Champagne stood as his name was called during the introduction of freed and exonerated community members event at the Innocence Network Conference in Phoenix in April.Adriana Zehbrauskas for The Boston Globe

For 41 years, Raymond Champagne steadfastly proclaimed he had been wrongly convicted of murder.

He spent 14,788 days in Massachusetts prisons devouring books and educating others, advocating for inmates’ rights, and becoming a self-taught jailhouse lawyer who would leave deadpan voice mails for his own attorney, gently reminding her that he was “still in prison.”

His relentlessness paid off in February 2020, when Mr. Champagne’s attorney unearthed evidence that police and prosecutors knew that he’d been framed. He was freed and ultimately exonerated.

In the 30 months since his release, Mr. Champagne channeled his own struggles to rejoin society into a force for good, helping launch the Exoneree Network, a group that helps the wrongfully convicted transition to life outside prison.

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Then, last week, Mr. Champagne died in a motorcycle crash outside his Chelsea home. Police said Mr. Champagne, 67, apparently lost control of his motorcycle and struck a tree.

“It just seems so unfair,” said his wife, Mary “Molly” Baldwin, the founder and chief executive officer of Roca, a Chelsea-based nonprofit that works with young people to combat urban violence. “Since he got out, he actually had a really full 30 months. It’s not fair it wasn’t longer.”

Baldwin witnessed Mr. Champagne adjusting to life on the outside, his breaths slowly becoming deeper. On occasion, he mentioned to Baldwin, “‘God, I feel free today,’” she recalled. “And that was beautiful.”

For the injustice done to him, Mr. Champagne received nothing. In Massachusetts, the wrongfully convicted who have spent more than a year in prison can seek up to $1 million in state compensation. Mr. Champagne filed his claim in May and had not received any money.

Mr. Champagne’s death sent shock waves through New England’s tight-knit network of exonerees and their supporters. It came one day after the death of Shawn Drumgold, who served 14 years for a wrongful murder conviction and died of an aneurysm at age 57.

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At Mr. Champagne’s memorial service Monday, friends described his willingness to adopt the struggles of others as his own. Mr. Champagne organized his fellow prisoners, fighting for better access to books and educational resources, pushing for policy changes, leading hunger strikes, and more.

Mr. Champagne’s formal education may have ended in sixth grade, but he had an insatiable intellect, and watched so many educational programs on public television that he joked he had a degree from PBS.

In 2019, Mr. Champagne was selected to take a Tufts University course studying the literature of confinement. The professor praised him as a “teacher for all of us,” for his introspective essays flecked with references to Oscar Wilde, the film “Cool Hand Luke,” and John Steinbeck’s character Tom Joad from “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“The true struggle of prison is (a) battle (that) is fought internally,” Champagne wrote. “Like Tom Joad’s Mother, she knew what to ask: ‘Did they hurt you boy … inside, where no one can see.’”

Mr. Champagne spent two-thirds of his life behind bars but had an outsize impact on people’s lives. Consider Mr. Champagne as a father: His only child was born in 1975, a few months after he went to prison.

“It didn’t matter that he wasn’t physically here in front of me,” his daughter, Michele Sholler, said in an interview. “He gave me all of the things that a dad needs to give a daughter — support, encouragement, love. ... I even got yelled at sometimes like, ‘What are you doing, kid?’”

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After his release, Mr. Champagne helped launch the Exoneree Network with Sean K. Ellis, who served nearly 22 years for robbery and murder before being freed and ultimately exonerated.

“There will never be another Ray Champagne,” Ellis said. “He was raw — as raw as they come — yet very respectful and very compassionate. Ray helped me with my healing process.”

Radha Natarajan, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, said that in prison, Mr. Champagne “didn’t just do the time, he fought the time” by spending “decades fighting the injustice of prison.”

Raymond Champagne.New England Innocence Project

Born in Springfield, Mr. Champagne lost his mother at age 12 to suicide, which he described as the most painful moment in his life. He was adrift, floating in and out of bars, hitchhiking back and forth across America, and getting in trouble.

By January 1975, Mr. Champagne was serving a sentence for robbery in Walpole state prison. He anticipated serving four to five years, but then a group of inmates killed a fellow prisoner, Stephen L. Curvin.

One of the inmates framed Mr. Champagne in part by planting a pair of bloody jeans in his cell. Mr. Champagne was convicted in 1979 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In Walpole, Mr. Champagne spent much of his time in the prison law library. So much so, that other inmates began asking for help, including Phillip Peters. Mr. Champagne pointed Peters to case law and coached him as he drafted an appeal, which overturned his conviction for home invasion.

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“He was a kind soul in a cruel world,” Peters said last week. “Walpole was no place for kind souls, but he was an exception.”

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Champagne met Baldwin, who worked as a prisoners’ rights activist. “I fell in love with him the moment I met him,” Baldwin recalled.

They married on Feb. 8, 1986, in the chapel at Concord state prison, barbed wire visible through the windows. The couple had pinned their hopes to Mr. Champagne’s upcoming appeal, but that failed. Prison tested their relationship, but their love never ceased.

In 2011, Mr. Champagne got a new lawyer: Lisa M. Kavanaugh, director of the Innocence Program at the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Kavanaugh recalled being captivated by his wit and deep knowledge of his own case.

“I learned a lot from him,” Kavanaugh said. “I learned how to be a better lawyer by embracing and telling the whole story of what has happened to someone.”

For Mr. Champagne, that meant the story of Walpole in the late 1970s, which was so violent 15 inmates were killed in the span of five years. Law enforcement faced intense pressure to solve the cases.

It took Kavanaugh nearly a decade, but she ultimately found records that proved police and prosecutors learned that Champagne was innocent less than a year after his conviction. Another inmate was accused of assaulting a fellow inmate and telling the victim that he helped kill a man in Walpole and framed someone with a pair of bloody jeans.

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In April, Mr. Champagne eagerly boarded his first flight since 1974 to attend an Innocence Network conference in Phoenix. He was with his people: fellow exonerees, innocence lawyers, and Kavanaugh, who was by then a dear friend. Mr. Champagne joyfully took the window seat.

“I just want to see the sun,” he said, “dancing on top of the clouds.”


Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.