Life Without Parole: Sixth-graders Hear about Innocence Program

Fred Clay spent 38 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Despite overwhelming evidence to absolve him, circumstances conspired to finger him for the murder of a cab driver. Recently, he visited Shady Hill's sixth grade.
Fred Clay spent 38 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Despite overwhelming evidence to absolve him, circumstances conspired to finger him for the murder of a cab driver. Recently, he visited Shady Hill, along with parent and lawyer Lisa Kavanaugh (Isabel Wood ’21), who directs the Innocence Program at the Massachusetts public defender's office and who took up Fred’s case. They spoke to the sixth grade about the successful five-year effort to exonerate Fred. Sixth-graders also learned what Fred’s case reveals about the justice system, how cases move forward despite glaring improprieties, and how unreliable evidence can be.
 
Lisa began by playing a portion of a podcast she had produced about Fred’s case and introducing students to the Innocence Program. “My staff attorney and I represent Massachusetts inmates who have been wrongfully convicted. We also advocate for reform that addresses the most common causes of wrongful convictions—false confessions, eyewitness misidentification, misconduct, inadequate defense, and unreliable evidence. The good news, I suppose, is that things in these areas have gotten better since Fred’s conviction. But there is still much work to be done.”
 
After hearing Fred’s riveting story, students were invited to ask questions. For example:
 
How did you feel about the people involved in falsely convicting you?
I was confused and angry and incredibly frustrated. The officers’ minds seemed made up, and nothing I told them was able to change their view. I was frustrated that they didn’t listen and that they assumed that what I told them wasn’t true. But I don’t blame anyone because they were just doing their jobs.
 
Why did you turn down the plea bargain that would have gotten you a lighter sentence?
I was terrified of prison from all I had heard about it. But I didn’t voluntarily want to put myself in prison, saying I did something I didn’t do. Once you start lying, it comes back to bite you. If I was going to prison, I wanted to go speaking the truth.
 
What do you do in jail to keep yourself going, especially when you have a life sentence?
You have to focus on doing time instead of letting time do you. I focused on trying to become a better person. I took courses, worked jobs, helped others. I was thankful in a way that I had left my earlier life behind because I’m pretty sure I would be dead. That life killed a lot of people I knew back then.
 
What was the first thing you did after you got out of jail?
My mother had died while I was in jail. So the first thing I did was visit her grave. She had a hard and troubled life, and I thought about all that she had been through and how hard it must’ve been up for her. But I also went to thank all the people who had supported me.
 
What is something you want people to learn from your story?
I think you need to give people the benefit of the doubt, keep an open mind, not jump to conclusions, and don’t rush to judgment.
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