The Misuse Of Psychology In A Murder Case Not long after his sixteenth birthday, Fred Clay was arrested for the murder of a cab driver in Boston. Eventually, Fred was found guilty — but only after police and prosecutors used questionable psychological techniques to single him out as the killer. This week on Hidden Brain, we go back four decades to uncover the harm that arises when flawed ideas from psychology are used to determine that a teenager should spend the rest of his life behind bars.
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The Night That Lasted A Lifetime: How Psychology Was Misused In Teen's Murder Case

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The Night That Lasted A Lifetime: How Psychology Was Misused In Teen's Murder Case

The Night That Lasted A Lifetime: How Psychology Was Misused In Teen's Murder Case

The Night That Lasted A Lifetime: How Psychology Was Misused In Teen's Murder Case

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/887179151/887973808" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

At seventeen years old, Fred Clay was sentenced to prison for a crime he did not commit. Various flawed ideas in psychology were used to determine his guilt. Ken Richardson/Ken Richardson hide caption

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Ken Richardson/Ken Richardson

At seventeen years old, Fred Clay was sentenced to prison for a crime he did not commit. Various flawed ideas in psychology were used to determine his guilt.

Ken Richardson/Ken Richardson

On an autumn night in 1979, a young cab driver named Jeffrey Boyajian was sitting in his taxi, waiting for his next fare. It was around 4 a.m., and he was parked in downtown Boston's red-light district, known then as the 'Combat Zone.'

Three men approached the curb and got into Jeffrey's cab. He drove them across the city to a public housing complex called the Archdale Housing Development.

When Jeffrey stopped the cab, the three passengers made their real intentions clear. They pulled Jeffrey out of the car to rob him. After he begged for his life, one of the men raised his left arm and fired several shots into Jeffrey's head.

Minutes later, the police arrived to find Jeffrey lying in a pool of his own blood near a dumpster. The robbers had fled.

Over the next few days, police used now-discredited psychological techniques — including hypnosis — to get two eyewitnesses to identify the shooters. One of them, they claimed, was sixteen-year-old Fred Clay.

Fred Clay's image was part of a twelve-photo array shown to two eyewitnesses in Jeffrey Boyajian's murder case. Both witnesses identified Fred ⁠— but only after police used flawed psychological techniques to elicit their testimonies. Lisa Kavanaugh / CPCS Innocence Program hide caption

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Lisa Kavanaugh / CPCS Innocence Program

Fred Clay's image was part of a twelve-photo array shown to two eyewitnesses in Jeffrey Boyajian's murder case. Both witnesses identified Fred ⁠— but only after police used flawed psychological techniques to elicit their testimonies.

Lisa Kavanaugh / CPCS Innocence Program

Fred remembers the day the police came to arrest him.

"They told me that I was being arrested for [the] murder of a cab driver," said Fred. "And I said, 'Excuse me, you got the wrong person.'"

The night of the murder, Fred had been asleep in bed at his foster home. His foster mother had seen him, and could have backed up his alibi.

But the police were sure they had the right person.

"People say they want to know the truth," said Fred. "But when you tell them the truth, they don't respect the truth."

Eventually, Fred was tried in court for the murder. The state relied on questionable psychological practices and ideas about human behavior as it argued for Fred's guilt, and determined that he should be sentenced as an adult.

This week on Hidden Brain, we go back four decades to retrace the steps of Fred's arrest and prosecution. We'll uncover the harm that arose when flawed ideas from psychology — ideas that continue to pervade some courtrooms today — were used to put a teenager behind bars for life.

Additional Resources:

"Wrongfully Jailed For 38 Years, Fred Clay Rebuilds His Life In Lowell," by Chris Burrell, WGBH, 2018.

"Eyewitness testimony," by Gary Wells, Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment, 2002.

"False witness: why is the US still using hypnosis to convict criminals?" by Ariel Ramchandani, The Guardian, 2019.

"Invisible Ink? What Rorschach Tests Really Tell Us," Association for Psychological Science, 2009.

"The Reasonable Black Child: Race, Adolescence, and the Fourth Amendment," by Kristin Henning, American University Law Review, 2018.

"The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014.

"The Memory Room: Part 1 and Part 2" by The Dallas Morning News, 2020.