NOEL KING, HOST:
Thirty-three states have laws that are meant to compensate people who've been wrongly convicted after they win release from prison. But in many states like Massachusetts, the laws are complicated. It can take months or even years for these folks to get any help or any money to restart their lives. Chris Burrell from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting followed one man during his first year of freedom.
CHRIS BURRELL: Fred Clay had just turned 16 when Boston police arrested him for the fatal shooting of a taxi driver. The murder charge was based on a routine practice back then - sharpening the fuzzy memory of a witness through hypnosis.
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RICHARD DWYER: I could picture the scene that was - at that night. Everything sort of came into focus, you know? It was very clear to me. It was almost like a TV screen.
BURRELL: That's Richard Dwyer testifying in 1981 that he could replay the scene in his mind and see Fred Clay and two others climb into the victim's cab. The testimony helped send Fred Clay to a prison where he stayed for almost 38 years until his case caught the attention of lawyers working on innocence projects. It took his lawyers six years to convince the state that Fred Clay's conviction was deeply flawed and unjust, partly because of the now-debunked use of hypnosis. He was freed just over a year ago.
BURRELL: You'd expect someone wrongfully locked up for almost four decades to be very bitter, and he is angry, but mostly, Fred Clay is grieving.
FRED CLAY: How people maintain their sanity dealing with all this craziness that they have to deal with, it's not easy. I just feel sad about a lot of things I've missed out on.
BURRELL: He never learned to drive, never got married, never allowed to be self-sufficient. For all that loss, Massachusetts could owe Fred Clay up to $1 million. It sounds like a lot, but...
CLAY: Thirty-eight years out of my life, that's not going to make up for that, so it's small kind of - it's small money. They made me pay for someone else's mistakes all these years, so why can't they just admit to their mistake that they made a mistake and just not fight it? OK. You deserve something, so here we go.
BURRELL: In fact, if Fred Clay were on parole, he'd be entitled to re-entry services, like a social worker and help with finding housing and jobs. But so far, Fred Clay hasn't gotten any of this help or even a dime from the state. To get compensation in Massachusetts, people like Fred Clay have to sue the state and prove they're actually innocent, not just released on a technicality. Even the state's top attorney admits that is a very high bar.
MAURA HEALEY: If the state erroneously convicted you - right? - and held you, deprived you of your liberty, you should be compensated for that.
BURRELL: That's Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. She says the process of getting help to wrongfully convicted people should not be bogged down in litigation.
HEALEY: I would like to explore with the legislature if there could be a different process.
BURRELL: Local innocence projects are also pushing for change. They point to states like California that just passed a law to get quicker help to exonerated people. Less than half of the roughly 2,300 people who were wrongfully convicted in the U.S. got any compensation, according to a study from The National Registry of Exonerations. Some states don't have any laws to compensate innocent people they imprisoned. In Massachusetts, still waiting for any official help, Fred Clay relies on volunteers and friends for some guidance. I met up with two of them at a hotel cafe near Lowell, an old factory city north of Boston where Fred Clay now lives. Doran Dibble began visiting Fred Clay in prison and bringing his family along 18 years ago, including his wife, Jacki.
JACKI DIBBLE: Prison life was easier than this, and we told him, you know, when you leave here, the real work begins. I know. I know.
DORAN DIBBLE: Yeah, they've told me.
J DIBBLE: And freedom is good, but it comes at a price. It's a steep learning curve for him. It's like cramming 38 years of life experience into one.
BURRELL: Fred Clay says he just wants to focus on survival skills, learn to budget, get into a healthy relationship and do something he would have done as a teenager if he hadn't been put behind bars - learn how to drive.
CLAY: Like, I'm just trying to live my life right now based on what I've missed. So it's - like I said, it's been a big rush, a rush to do all kind of stuff.
BURRELL: One thing he avoids is thinking about his compensation lawsuit. It only stirs up anger about the injustice he endured. And Fred Clay knows it could take many more months to find out if he actually gets anything from the state. For NPR News, I'm Chris Burrell.
KING: And Chris Burrell's story came to us from WGBH in Boston.
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