On October 1, Concord Academy’s Prison Justice Project club hosted the third annual Wrongful Conviction Day Assembly. Wrongful Conviction Day is a day dedicated to raising awareness of the causes and remedies of wrongful convictions, as students recognize the tremendous personal, social, and emotional consequences on innocent people and their families. Although this international holiday occurs annually on October 2, CA was able to devote a Friday afternoon to hear the stories of three individuals directly involved in the world of prison justice.
Lisa Kavanaugh arrived on campus with two exonerees that she advocated for, who were ultimately litigated from their wrongful convictions. Fighting for the voices of the innocent, Kavanaugh has served as the director of the Committee for Public Counsel Service Innocence Program for the last 10 years. The program has aided the exoneration of 15 people under her leadership.
Ray Champagne, one of her exonerees, shared his experience serving 41 years in prison for a crime he did not commit and commented on his prison justice advocacy behind bars. Exonerated in 2020, Champagne was wrongfully accused of first-degree murder of another inmate, and after nearly seven years of fighting for his case, Kavanaugh was able to overturn his conviction. While in prison, Champagne devoted decades of service on the board of Prisoners’ Legal Services and volunteered with the Prison Library Project, advocating for prisoners’ rights. Along with Kavanaugh and two other Massachusetts exonerees, Champagne established the Exoneree Network, an advocacy group that provides peer-led support to wrongfully convicted people.
CA also welcomed Fred Clay to campus, who was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder two weeks after his 16th birthday . Clay was tried as an adult and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, serving 38 years before his exoneration in 2017. Since being released, Clay has been an active member of the exoneree community, sharing his story with students of all ages. He also worked in reentry circles, where he supported exonerated people in rejoining the Lowell community.
Champagne and Clay provided powerful personal anecdotes from their time in prison, exposing prominent issues embedded within the criminal justice system, specifically around life without parole. Because they were convicted of first-degree murder, they were sentenced to die in prison without the opportunity to ever be released.
During the panel, a CA student asked about how they felt being punished for a crime they did not commit. Quickly, both exonerees replied: anger. Clay described the way that his outrage towards the prison system manifested itself in his behavior during his first seventeen years behind bars. Champagne mirrored this point and explained how it is difficult to not succumb to the violent, dangerous, and dehumanizing environment—the only one he was continually exposed to.
Both Champagne and Clay survived and contained their wrath by taking ownership of their values and presence in prison. Champagne worked as a jailhouse lawyer, practicing for four years in prison to try and alter inequitable policies. Being a prison rights activist while incarcerated was truly inspiring, and he has worked to mitigate individuals out of the same harmful circumstances he was in. Clay said that he “figured out how to do my time and not let my time do me”, and he reevaluated the way that he behaved in prison. Through participating on a basketball team and engaging in educational programs, Clay honorably made the best out of a horrific situation.
CA was immensely lucky to have two of the longest-serving exonerees in history on campus for Wrongful Conviction Day this year. The compelling conversation clearly would not end with the Friday assembly. In order to become more involved in criminal justice reform, the Prison Justice Project urges students to come out to more meetings in the future.