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James Watson

Other Suffolk County Exonerations
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On August 8, 2017, nearly 38 years after he was arrested for murder, Frederick Clay was exonerated and released from prison based on evidence that he was mistakenly identified as the gunman who killed a cab driver in Boston, Massachusetts. Three years later, on November 10, 2020, James Watson, Clay’s codefendant, was exonerated.

The crime occurred shortly after 4 a.m. on Friday, November 16, 1979. Witnesses heard a commotion on the street outside of the Archdale housing project in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston. Several shots were fired and 28-year-old Jeffrey Boyajian was shot five times in the head.

When police arrived, 25-year-old Neal Sweatt and his friend, Ben Brown, were standing in a doorway of a nearby building on Broadway Terrace. Both said they had not seen what happened. That morning, police interviewed residents of the building and spoke to Sweatt’s mother, Phillippa, who said she was making coffee for Neal and Brown when she heard a noise outside the window of their second-story apartment. She said she called to Neal, “Look, they’re pulling a cab driver…out of a cab.”

Phillippa said there were three men wearing leather jackets. Two were about 6 feet tall and one was about 5 feet 8 inches tall. As they searched Boyajian’s pockets, she heard him say, “Take what you want, but let me live.” She said that after a struggle, the shorter man, holding a gun in his left hand, shot Boyajian.

Later that afternoon, cab driver Richard Dwyer called police to say he had read about the murder in the Boston Globe and saw a photograph of Boyajian’s cab. Dwyer said he remembered that he was sitting behind Boyajian’s cab on Washington Street in the “Combat Zone,” the adult entertainment district in downtown Boston, when he saw three black men walking toward him—two very tall and one much shorter. Dwyer said he turned his meter on and shook his head to indicate he was not available. The three then got into Boyajian’s cab, which was parked in front of Dwyer’s cab, and took off.

Dwyer became a critical witness, although his account of how he learned of the crime was questionable—if not fabricated. There was no coverage of the crime in the local papers that day because the crime occurred after the deadline for publication of that day’s edition had passed.

By the time Dwyer came to the police, the lead detective, Henry Berlo, had assembled an array of 12 photographs of young men who were known to live in or hang out around the Archdale apartments. Although no report was ever made, Dwyer and the detective would later say that Dwyer tentatively identified 16-year-old Frederick Clay as the shorter of the three individuals and 20-year-old James Watson as one of the two taller men. The third man was never identified or apprehended.

At that time, Dwyer agreed to be hypnotized. Boston Police officer Patrick Brady, a 25-year-veteran whose position was “Investigative Hypnologist,” met with Dwyer and talked about the hypnosis process for ten or fifteen minutes. During the unrecorded conversation, Brady explained what hypnosis was and how it worked. Brady’s training included some courses and seminars, but he did not consider himself an expert. Dwyer was the fifth or sixth person he had ever hypnotized.

Brady told Dwyer that hypnosis would allow him to see the events in his mind as if he were watching television or a documentary. Present during this conversation were three prosecutors and a detective. Brady hypnotized Dwyer, instructing him that he would be watching a special documentary film and would see exactly what occurred.

Brady told Dwyer that he would be able to replay what he had witnessed that morning on lower Washington Street. He asked Dwyer to imagine the scene, then inquired whether Dwyer could see his Boyajian’s cab. Throughout, Brady suggested that Dwyer could freeze his memory to get a better look.

Immediately after the hypnosis session, Berlo showed Dwyer the photographic array again. This time, Dwyer’s “doubts were gone,” and he positively identified Clay’s photograph as the short man he saw that night. He also added new details to his description of the men, indicating that one was thin and wore a “gold-colored balloon jacket.” Later, Dwyer testified to a grand jury that he never saw the photo array until after being hypnotized. It was not until more than a year later, when defense lawyers were challenging the identifications and the use of hypnosis that Berlo and Dwyer said he viewed the photo lineup before being hypnotized. What was not clear, however, was whether Dwyer made a tentative identification before being hypnotized or afterward. He and Berlo testified both ways at different times during the ensuing legal proceedings.

On Saturday, November 17, the day after Dwyer viewed the array the second time, four detectives took the same photo lineup to the housing project and spent two or three hours talking to Neal and Phillippa Sweatt. Neither made any identification.

Police returned to the Sweatt apartment the next day, on Sunday, November 18, and once again showed the photographic lineup. This time Berlo announced that he “had a fairly good idea of who was involved.” When Neal expressed apprehension about getting involved, Berlo said that if Neal cooperated, the police would arrange for the family to move out of the housing project. At that time, the Sweatt family was the only white family living in the development and had been on a wait list to move to another housing project for five years. Neither Neal nor his mother made any identification. However, Neal did agree to go under hypnosis and went to the station that night to be hypnotized. That session was terminated due to Neal’s “poor concentration.”

Police returned to the Sweatt apartment on Monday afternoon and showed Neal the photo array a third time. As detective Berlo spread out the photos on the kitchen table, another detective announced that the family would be relocated at the city of Boston’s expense. At that moment, Neal then identified Clay as the gunman, saying he knew him as “Freddie,” and identified Watson as another participant in the robbery. He said he knew both from the neighborhood.

Clay and Watson were arrested that day and charged with first-degree murder. Clay was prosecuted as an adult.

Clay and Watson went to trial in Suffolk County Superior Court in August 1981. Before trial, the defense moved to suppress the eyewitness identifications as the product of unfairly suggestive police procedures. The trial judge deferred ruling on the motion, and after hearing testimony from Neal, Dwyer, and Berlo during the trial, declined to suppress the identifications.

No physical evidence linked Watson or Clay to the crime. Fingerprints collected from Boyajian’s cab and a nearby car that the gunman touched (according to Phillippa Sweatt) had insufficient print ridges for comparison.

Dwyer and Neal Sweatt both testified and identified Clay and Watson. Neal said that Clay was the gunman. In addition, Diane Moses, Watson’s former girlfriend and the mother of his son, testified that Watson had told her he was present at the shooting.

Dwyer testified that while he had initially expressed doubts about his identification of Clay, telling police he “wasn’t ready to say that’s the guy,” he said his pre-hypnosis certainty was eight on a scale of one to 10.

Dwyer described being hypnotized. He said that during the session “everything sort of came into focus…[and] was very clear . . . almost like a TV screen.”

He said that he could see an “instant replay” of what he saw that morning, and that he could “freeze” his memories so he could get a better look. Dwyer claimed he “got a closer view than [he] had on lower Washington Street, … and it was [his] belief that…[he was] simply getting a better look at what [he himself] had actually seen when [he was] on lower Washington Street."

Dwyer testified that 11 days after the shooting, he agreed to be hypnotized a second time. During this session, he said, he saw the “film of what occurred.” When the men get into Boyajian’s cab, the film was “frozen with a frame on the screen,” and the screen zoomed in so that he could get “a close-up view of the faces of the three individuals.” Dwyer even claimed that he got a “closer view” than he had from his cab. Dwyer testified that at the end of the second session, he viewed the 12-photograph lineup a third time and he positively identified Clay and Watson.

Recordings of both hypnosis sessions were played for the jury. Brady testified, after being qualified as an expert on hypnosis, about the sessions with Dwyer. He said that “the mind can take mental pictures that are encoded in the brain.”

The prosecution also presented testimony from Martin Reiser, a psychologist for the Los Angeles Police Department and an expert on the subject of the reliability of hypnotically aided recall.

Reiser testified that while there was no definitive answer on how memory worked, his experience taught him that it worked at least in part like a giant computerized videotape recording. Reiser said that the television technique enabled subjects to better concentrate and pay attention to details without background distractions. He believed that subjects could properly be instructed that, “the film the subject will see will be an exact replay in vivid and accurate detail of the crime event in question.”

The defense also called a hypnosis expert—Martin Orne, who was at that time the world’s leading scientist in the field of hypnosis. A psychiatrist with a degree from Tufts Medical School and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Harvard University, Orne was a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and the Senior Attending Psychiatrist at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. Dr. Orne was highly critical of Reiser and Brady ‘s depiction of human memory. He testified that the so-called “tape recorder” theory of memory lacked scientific support, and that he was unaware of any cognitive psychologists who agreed with this theory.

Orne noted that the belief that memory worked like a giant videotape recorder in the mind enjoyed widespread acceptance by people working in police circles with hypnosis. He noted that if the mind worked like a giant tape recorder, both nonsense material and highly meaningful material would be recorded and remembered.

Orne said the television technique of hypnosis was not a reliable method for obtaining the accurate recall of historical facts. He told the jury that once a subject saw the “video tape” in hypnosis, it was integrated into the subject’s memory and the subject was unable to separate it from any original memory of actual events that were seen.

Orne was critical of Brady’s use of phrases like “zooming in” and “slowing the frames down” as “profoundly distorting” because they made the subject believe he could increase the resolution of what he was seeing. Orne also told the jury that hypnosis involved a suggested distortion of memory and therefore was a distortion of the truth.

Clay testified he was not involved in the crime and was at home with his foster mother, Ines King, at the time of the shooting. He testified further that he was right-handed and was 5 feet 4 inches tall—at least four inches shorter than any of the witnesses’ descriptions of the shooter.

The defense also noted that the Sweatts’s apartment window was more than 80 feet from where Boyajian’s body was found and that the only illumination came from a single streetlight.

King testified that Clay had been placed in her home in October 1979, and that he was there when she got home from church on the night of November 15, 1979. She said he was still in bed when she got up at 8 a.m.—four hours after the shooting—on Friday, November 16. The only exit door locked from the inside, and she had the only key.

The prosecution called two young men who had also lived in foster care with King. Both said they knew of a second-floor window through which one could get out of King’s house undetected. One of them, Dennis Murray, even said he recalled a time when he awoke and Clay was not there, though he had no idea what month or even year that occurred. During closing argument, the prosecution—repeatedly and without any supporting evidence—suggested that the night Clay was missing was actually the night of the shooting.

On August 19, 1981, the jury convicted Clay and Watson of first-degree murder. Both were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld Clay’s conviction and reversed Watson’s conviction in March 1983. The court said that the trial judge had failed to instruct the jury that Watson could be found guilty of felony-murder based on armed robbery only if there was proof that he knew Clay had a gun.

Watson’s second trial took place a year later. Prosecutors had the same witnesses—Dwyer, Neal Sweatt, and Diane Moses. At the trial, Watson’s attorney called Phillippa Sweatt believing she would testify that she could not identify the men who robbed and shot the cabdriver. But that backfired. She was asked if she could recognize any of the men. She responded, “I recognized the tall boy.” The attorney asked her if she saw any of those “boys” in the courtroom. She pointed toward Watson and said “I think that’s the boy over there.”

Watson was convicted a second time on February 2, 1984, and again sentenced to life without parole. He appealed the conviction, but the state’s Supreme Judicial Court rejected that appeal at the end of 1984.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional. That made Clay eligible for parole.

At a parole hearing in 2015, Clay said he could not give an account of the crime because he was not there. Although the parole board voted 4-3 in favor of granting parole, he was denied release because the board ruled a 2/3 majority—five votes—was necessary. Clay’s lawyers appealed. In 2016, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that since a simple majority was the standard in 1979 when the crime was committed, Clay was entitled to be paroled.

However, in the meantime, Clay’s lawyers, Lisa Kavanaugh, director of the Committee for Public Services Counsel Innocence Program, and Jeffrey Harris, of the law firm Good, Schneider, and Cormier, had filed a motion for new trial. The motion claimed that Clay’s lawyer had failed to investigate evidence that showed other men who lived in the housing project were responsible for the crime.

In 2016, Regina Moses, Diana Moses’s sister, told an investigator for Clay that at the time of the crime, Watson was hanging out with two brothers, Tyrone and Junior Cooper—all of whom frequently made fun of Clay. Regina Moses said Clay was a loner and never hung out with Watson or the Coopers, whom she said always wore leather jackets. (Although only passing acquaintances at the time of the murder, Watson and Clay would become close friends when they were both incarcerated at the same prison.)

At the time of Clay’s trial, the prosecution had given Clay’s defense lawyer police reports documenting an interview with Diane Moses conducted less than 24 hours after Boyajian’s murder. Diane told police that she learned of the crime from Jimmy Poole, who was living with the Cooper brothers’ mother. Diane said Poole told her that earlier that day—the same day of the crime—Tyrone and Junior Cooper told him that they hurt a cab driver. In the police report, Diane was quoted as saying she saw the Cooper brothers on the afternoon of the shooting and both were wearing leather jackets and black pants.

The motion for new trial detailed how Tyrone Cooper, who was 16 at the time of the crime and known to hang out in the Combat Zone, had later been convicted of numerous offenses, including armed robbery, some of which occurred only months after Boyajian’s murder. Cooper was 5 feet 8 inches tall and Junior was several inches taller—as was Watson.

The motion included analysis by experts that the identification procedures—even beyond the hypnosis—were suggestive and manipulative, particularly showing Dwyer and Neal Sweatt the same photographic lineup at least three and possibly as many as five times.

In addition, the motion said that Neal Sweatt was mentally challenged. Although he was 25 at the time, he had the mental capacity of a 10-year-old, according to records the appellate attorneys located but that Clay’s trial defense lawyer had never sought.

The motion also challenged the hypnosis-related testimony as unreliable, citing experts who said that the science underlying the “television technique,” the idea that memory is like a video camera, had been substantially debunked.

The case was turned over to Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley’s conviction integrity unit, which conducted a re-investigation. DNA tests were performed on the pockets of Boyajian’s pants — which had been rifled by one of the robbers— but only Boyajian’s DNA was identified.

On August 8, 2017, the prosecution agreed that Clay’s conviction should be vacated, and the charges were dismissed. Clay, who was still in custody, was released. In part because of Moses’s testimony against Watson, his path to exoneration took a longer, more circuitous route. He also sought DNA testing, and in 2017, the testing excluded Watson as a source of the DNA on five of eight test areas, while the other three were inconclusive. Watson then filed a motion for a new trial.

His petition, filed in April 2020 and then expanded in June 2020, asserted prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, and new evidence of innocence in the form of a recantation by Diane Moses.

As part of the motion preparation, Watson’s attorneys had found pre-trial correspondence between prosecutor Timothy O’Neill and a psychiatrist about the use of hypnosis. In the letter, dated September 29, 1980, O’Neill said that Dwyer had made his initial identification after hypnosis, not before. This contradicted both Dwyer’s testimony and the timeline of events that prosecutors had created and adopted so that Dwyer would be allowed to testify, as the Massachusetts courts had ruled in 1980 that initial identifications that occurred after hypnosis were inadmissible.

The petition also said that Watson’s trial attorney had been ineffective for failing to present a third-party culprit defense of the Cooper brothers, for allowing Phillippa Sweatt to testify without properly preparing her as a witness, and for failing to mount a more vigorous challenge to suppress Dwyer’s hypnosis-enhanced identification. By this time, Watson was represented by Barbara Munro and Madeline Blanchette, who were appointed by the Committee for Public Counsel Services Innocence Program.

Investigators working for Watson’s legal team – funded by the New England Innocence Project – had located several relatives of Moses, who said in affidavits that Moses had told them as early as 2001 that she lied at both trials when she said Watson had confessed to being present during the robbery and shooting. She told these relatives that she gave the testimony after the police had threatened to place her children in foster care and arrest her on drug and prostitution charges.

Separately, Moses’s relatives said that she and two of her children – although not Watson’s son – were relocated to Georgia prior to the first trial. Moses was originally a potential defense witness, but on the eve of the first trial, the state subpoenaed her as a witness. O’Neill told the court that he had not spoken with Moses prior to the trial, but Watson’s motion questioned the truth of that statement. Why, the motion asked, would the state call a witness without knowing what their testimony would be, and why would the state pay to relocate a witness who was not assisting in the prosecution?

As part of Watson’s motion, his legal team also asked for his release from prison while his petition was considered. The petition cited the COVID-19 epidemic and Watson’s own health issues, including diabetes and a blockage in his esophagus. The state agreed to the request.

As part of its response, prosecutors submitted a letter of support from Jerry Boyajian, Jeffrey’s brother. It read in part: “We believe that the humane thing to do in this case is to release him to his family as swiftly as possible, so that he can get the proper medical care and support required while awaiting the disposition of his motion for retrial.”

Watson was released from prison on April 16, 2020.

The Conviction Integrity Program of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office investigated the claims in the motion. Due to sickness, O’Neill was not able to be interviewed. On November 4, 2020, prosecutors filed a response and agreed to vacate Watson’s conviction, stating that the state could not “adequately refute the claim that his trial counsel was ineffective for disregarding issues related to the time of eyewitness identification.”

A court ordered a new trial on November 5, 2020, and the charges were dismissed on November 10, 2020.

Afterward, Munro told the media: “The greatest injustice is to take an innocent man away from his son and family. This could have been prevented here if the then-prosecutor had not withheld from the defense the fact that the eyewitnesses were hypnotized prior to their identifications of Mr. Watson, rendering them unreliable.”

Clay received $1 million in compensation from Massachusetts in January 2019, the maximum allowed under state law. He also received $3.1 million from Boston.

– Maurice Possley and Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 11/25/2020
Last Updated: 11/25/2020
State:Massachusetts
County:Suffolk
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1979
Convicted:1981
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*