Should all life sentences be reviewed?

Vacated conviction, $3.1m settlement raise issue anew

TWO WRONGFULLY convicted black men won big victories this week — one had a murder conviction vacated, and the second will get $3.1 million for serving 38 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Both men received sentences of life without parole.

There is a combined 78 years of wrongful incarceration between Frederick Clay, who got the settlement, and James J. Watson, whose sentence was vacated. There are also reports of millions spent by the city of Boston to resolve police misconduct claims.

“Every case in the DOC system of someone serving life without parole should be reviewed. There are approximately 1,000 people serving life,” tweeted Rep. Liz Miranda of Boston on Thursday while sharing the Clay story.

Revisiting the cases of those serving life without parole isn’t mentioned in the police reform package currently being debated on Beacon Hill, although the legislation does increase public access to records of police wrongdoing, which could help those seeking to reopen cases.

District attorneys are also starting to identify and share with defense attorneys the names of police with issues in their background that could damage their credibility. In September, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins released a so-called Brady List of 136 officers who have been indicted or charged on federal offenses or been accused of or engaged in misconduct. Many remain on the job.

Nationally, more than 90 percent of state and federal criminal convictions are the result of guilty pleas, often by people who say they didn’t commit a crime. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in 2018 wrote that over the last 50 years, defendants chose trial in less than 3 percent of state and federal criminal cases. Thirty years ago, the group said, 20 percent of those arrested chose trial.

When Rollins released her Brady list, defense attorney David Nathanson noted that the high rate of guilty pleas means an officer’s assertions are read off a police report and never tested under cross examination. That means that many people who end up with 15, 20, or 30 years in prison don’t always get the public forum that comes with a trial. Life without the opportunity of parole means, in most situations, the issue won’t be revisited unless a successful appeal is made.

Watson had his conviction overturned last week for the 1979 murder of Boston cab driver Jeffrey Boyajian after a Suffolk County Superior Court judge found Watson adequately raised concerns about prosecutorial and police misconduct. Specifically, the police allegedly incentivized and coerced witnesses, used hypnosis on a witness (which is widely discredited), and failed to find Watson’s DNA on any items connected with the murder.

Watson was serving life without parole when he was released in April due to his wrongful conviction claims, his age, and medical condition. He was represented by the Committee for Public Counsel Services’ Innocence Program, and the investigation into his 41-year-old case was funded by the New England Innocence Project. Rollins’s office dismissed all charges against Watson on November 10.

Watson’s co-defendant, Clay, was released three years ago when his case was vacated by former Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley’s office, which conducted an investigation into the 1979 murder that raised doubts on the fairness of his trial.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Such exonerations are few and far between. Over its 20-year history, the New England Innocence Project lists only 20 exonerees.

Beacon Hill proposals that pre-date George Floyd’s death, which sparked calls for targeted reform, also exist. Belmont Sen. William Brownsberger and Cambridge Rep. David Rogers have sought to repeal life without parole. Legislators are also pushing to allow prisoners to make the case for their release after 25 years of incarceration.