On September 30, the Prison Justice Project (PJP) club hosted Concord Academy’s fourth annual Wrongful Conviction Day Assembly. Each Wrongful Conviction Day, exonerees, loved ones, advocates, and community members gather to lift their voices against injustice in criminal legal systems around the world. This year, the CA community was honored to welcome speakers Lisa Kavanaugh P’22 ’25, attorney and director of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) Innocence Program, and Sean Ellis, exoneree and co-founder of the New England Innocence Project’s Exoneree Network.
As many community members will remember, in 2020 and 2021, Kavanaugh presented alongside Ray Champagne, exoneree and another co-founder of the Exoneree Network (EN). Champagne was unable to return to CA this year, having passed away in a motorcycle accident in July 2022. Compelled to honor his life and legacy, Kavanaugh began by telling Champagne’s story.
Ray Champagne entered the maximum-security prison in Walpole, Massachusetts, in 1974 at age 19. He expected to be eligible for parole by his mid-20s. While serving time in Walpole, a prison notorious for violence, Champagne was wrongfully convicted for a murder that took place in the cell adjacent to his—a crime to which another prisoner confessed a year later. That evidence was withheld from him and his allies until 2019 when Kavanaugh and her legal team secured Champagne’s release. He was 64 years old by then.
Champagne’s fight did not end there. Even while in prison, Champagne devoted decades to serving on the board of Prisoners’ Legal Services and advocated for prisoners’ rights with the Prison Library Project. Ellis, who had also been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned at Walpole, recalled seeing boxes upon boxes of files in the prison’s legal storage area. This site, to Ellis and many other incarcerated peoples preparing appeals, became a beacon of hope.
Wise, funny, exceedingly kind, and always honest, Champagne impacted everyone he met. “Ray fought the system while he was in it, and he spoke out while he was in the custody of those doing the harm,” Ellis said. “To have the spirit to fight it is a rare commodity.”
During the assembly, Ellis too spoke movingly about what he had endured during his nearly 22 years in prison, after being falsely accused of the murder of a Boston police officer. His experience was the subject of the 2020 Netflix documentary series Trial 4. With painful clarity, Ellis detailed a general atmosphere of distrust, fear, and violence within the prisons he inhabited. To him, these systemic injustices were symptomatic of police brutality, racial inequality, as well as federal corruption. When he finally succeeded in overturning his wrongful conviction after 28 years, Ellis continued to battle the challenges of rehabilitation. For him, this only highlights the absolute necessity of programs such as the Exoneree Network and its New Day Fund, which aims to support newly released exonerees physically, psychologically, and financially. For Ellis, the Exoneree Network stemmed from a place of love, one strengthened by a communal dedication to encouragement and growth.
Cozette Weng ’23 reflected upon their experience as an intern with the Exoneree Network this past summer. They remarked, “Everything EN does has been from the ground up, be it establishing connections with social workers, getting laptop and cellphone donations, or organizing healing circles through word of mouth.” It truly takes a village.
While the work is difficult and emotionally taxing, Cozette remains hopeful about the future of the New England Exoneree Network, as well as innocence advocacy efforts at large. EN’s ongoing projects include the digitization of state petition forms to promote archival transparency, as well as collaborations with Boston College Law School’s Innocence Project. “Seeing all these people come together makes you believe in each other, believe in restorative justice, and want to lift each other up just a little bit more,” Cozette concluded.
Though Wrongful Conviction Day occurs annually on October 2, advocacy for criminal justice requires persistent, dedicated effort. Students in CA’s Prison Justice Project club are active throughout the year in raising awareness of wrongful and mass incarceration. The school’s proximity to the medium-security Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Concord, just 2 miles away, also presents an opportunity for partnership. For students looking to take action, ways to get involved include connecting with the PJP co-heads, participating in the Prison Book Program, and attending the Run for Innocence on November 6 in Lexington.