A Massachusetts man who's been locked up for 41 years is out of prison while he makes the case he was wrongfully convicted. He was released in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last Friday, a group of supporters cheered for James Watson as a van pulled up to his sister’s apartment in Somerville.
In a Facebook video, Watson got out and held up his arms up in a victory “V” – next to his two lawyers, Barb Munro and Madeline Weaver Blanchette.
Watson had just arrived from the state prison in Norfolk, 41 years after he was arrested for the 1979 murder of a taxi driver in Boston.
“Mr. Watson, from Day One, has stood by his claim that he was never there and he's innocent,” said Munro, of Holyoke, who — along with Weaver and the New England Innocence Project — had been been trying to get Watson a new trial for two years. The state's public defender agency launched the case.
Last week, Judge Christine Roach allowed Watson to leave prison while his legal team argues his appeal. One reason for his release is that Watson, now 61, needs urgent treatment for a medical condition.
“And then the fact that COVID-19 is prevalent was really going to be a death sentence, because in any prison, it's like a petri dish,” Munro said.
But Munro said health concerns alone would not have got him out if he didn't also have a strong case. The judge wrote Watson has a "reasonable possibility" of having his conviction overturned.
The Suffolk County district attorney’s office wrote a legal brief saying it did not oppose Watson’s release, citing “the potential strength of the defendant’s claims in his motion for new trial, his community ties, the re-entry treatment plan, his institutional conduct, and his current medical condition and potential risk of harm from COVID-19.”
The brief also included a statement of support from the family of the murder victim, Jeffrey Boyajian.
“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,” the family said.
The judge's order to release Watson mentioned his "unblemished" record in prison and the unlikeliness he will flee or re-offend.
Another factor in Watson's favor is that his original co-defendant, Fred Clay, was exonerated in 2017 and later awarded a $1 million settlement from the state.
“Our hope is that once the commonwealth has completed their investigation, they will then agree that justice has not been done,” Munro said, “and that they will assent to our motion as they did with Fred Clay.”
Munro said Watson's case centers on the unreliable ways witnesses identified him in the murder, including hypnosis-induced testimony.
She expects the motion for a new trial will be decided by the end of summer. In the meantime, she said Watson is thankful to be out and has shown no anger.
“He is just a happy-go-lucky guy,” she said. “He virtually raised his son from prison, and he has maintained that relationship with him.”
While his legal case continues, Watson is required to stay with his sister, wear a tracking device and only leave home for medical care — which is not all that different from most people during the pandemic.
This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative and originally aired on New England Public Radio.
This segment aired on April 21, 2020.