On Friday, October 1, CA students gathered in the Chapel for a panel discussion in honor of Wrongful Conviction Day, recognized annually on October 2. Prison Justice Club hosted the event, which featured two exonerees, Raymond Champagne and Frederick Clay, and their attorney, Lisa Kavanaugh P’22 ’25, director of the Committee for Public Counsel Services Innocence Program

Kavanaugh opened the discussion by explaining life without parole, the sentence both Clay and Champagne received. If convicted of first-degree murder in Massachusetts, a person is sentenced to life without the possibiliy of parole in prison. With the exception of being exonerated, a person with this sentence will most likely die in prison. Kavanaugh emphasized that individuals sentenced to life without parole are denied resources that prisoners who are expected to be released from prison receive. Some of these individuals, such as Clay and Champagne, have been wrongfully convicted. Champagne served 41 years in prison and Clay served 38 years for murders they did not commit. 

During the discussion, Champagne and Clay described the painful realities of their wrongful convictions and time spent in prison. In Clay’s case, he was still a child when he was tried as an adult for first-degree murder. “I told everybody I was innocent,” Clay remarked, but the adults surrounding him did not hear or believe him. On the basis of a faulty eyewitness identification, Clay was wrongfully sentenced to life without parole in prison at the age of 16. During his sentencing and time in prison, Clay struggled with feelings of anger and hopelessness. “I didn’t think I was going to survive in prison,” he said. 

Champagne similarly experienced anger and resentment after his sentence to life without parole. At the time, Champagne was already serving a sentence in prison when he was falsely accused of murdering another inmate. “You have no control over your life in prison,” Champagne said. To combat this lack of autonomy, Champagne focused on changing prison policy. He participated in hunger strikes, the longest of which lasted 34 days. He also studied and practiced law during his sentence.

While Champagne and Clay are grateful to be out of prison, they acknowledge that many innocent individuals remain behind bars without the support needed for exoneration. Kavanaugh ended the conversation by emphasizing that “change is critically important.” No one should be denied the possibility of parole, she stated. On Tuesday, October 5, there will be a hearing at the Massachusetts State House on legislation that would eliminate life sentences without the possibility of parole. Kavanaugh encouraged students to learn more about this legislation. You can read more about the bill here. 

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