‘Mass Exoneration’ takes sobering look at consequences of wrongful conviction

Nicole Baker, Brian Pilchik, Beverly Rosario and exoneree Victor Rosario record an episode of "Mass Exoneration." Courtesy Ken Richardson

Frederick Clay spent 38 years in prison for the murder of a Boston taxi driver. Only there was one problem: He was innocent. Upon reevaluation, the evidence once used to convict Clay confirmed his long-attested innocence, but the impact of imprisonment on his life was far from over, as is the case for hundreds of exonerees around the country. In fact, Clay’s account of his experience with injustice is only the first of many similar stories told in the new Massachusetts-based podcast, Mass Exoneration.”

Created by a team of lawyers that includes Lisa Kavanaugh, Nicole Baker and Tufts alum Brian Pilchik (LA ’14), the “Mass Exoneration” podcast strives to share the stories of male exonerees, like Clay, who suffer the lifelong consequences of a wrongful conviction.

Through their work with the New England Innocence Project, a nonprofit that provides pro bono legal representation to people who have been wrongfully convicted, Kavanaugh, Baker and Pilchik got together and eventually found themselves talking about their clients, their stories and the irrefutable importance behind them. Not long after, they began floating around the idea of producing a podcast in order to spread these stories — an idea that eventually came to fruition.

“We knew we had these clients who had very powerful stories that they wanted told,” Pilchik said. “We thought it would be good to give them a platform to share those stories, not only with their family, but also with people who don’t know what is going on in the criminal justice system.”

After figuring out the logistics, as well as partnering up with local recording studio PRX Podcast Garage, the team got started on reaching out to clients who expressed interest in telling their stories.

We knew the basic structures of the clients’ exoneration narratives,” Pilchik said. “We read online, we read court documents, we gathered our data. They got arrested, they went to prison, they got out and now they have to learn what an iPhone is — everyone has that story in our interviews. What surprised us was everything else.”

From a childhood spent in foster care to a battle against homophobia, the life narratives explored throughout season one of “Mass Exoneration” by no means all tell the same tale. Whether it is in terms of the varying backgrounds of the exonerees or the unethical practices leading to their conviction, each episode follows a unique path.

“I think that all of our stories are very different,” Pilchik said. “Perhaps one of the things that’s cool about them is that they highlight different ways that criminal trials can go wrong because sometimes it comes from human unfairness, and while that’s scary, it makes for a really compelling story.”

However, the complexity and thoroughness of the interview process went beyond simply combing through hours of recordings to figure out the clients’ stories; Kavanaugh also emphasized the importance of each exoneree bringing a loved one with them to their interview.

“When stories are written about people being exonerated, their families are rarely even mentioned,” Kavanaugh said. “We wanted to acknowledge that it’s not just the wrongfully convicted person who suffers — the family does the time with their loved ones.”

In certain episodes, such as the one centered around Nat Cosenza and his two daughters, family plays a major role. In others, it is clear that the exoneree and his relatives were not the only ones who experienced the pain of these false convictions. In the case of Clay, the victim’s brother, Jerry Boyajian, along with his wife, Katrina Boyajian, joined the team in telling Clay’s story.

“[Katrina and Jerry] came to believe fully in Fred’s innocence, so they ended up participating in the podcast as well,” Kavanaugh said. “They weren’t Fred’s family, but they had become connected to him through their shared experience of this wrongful conviction.”

Yet, the involvement of the Boyajians extended beyond participation in the podcast. Following the release of Clay’s episode, a blog post written by Katrina Boyajian about Fred’s story and their gratitude for the opportunity to contribute to the podcast was posted on the “Mass Exoneration” website.

While “Mass Exoneration” primarily focuses on the subsequent consequences and pain felt by those impacted by wrongful convictions, the experience of sharing these stories of injustice left a lasting impression on the creators as well.

“It’s one thing to work with people who have been accused of crimes, but it’s another to have them share with Nicole [Baker] and I everything about what their lives have been like in the last 30 or 40 years,” Pilchik said. “It’s opened my eyes to how prevalent wrongful convictions are and how they happen to all sorts of different people from all sorts of different backgrounds.”

As the first season of “Mass Exoneration” comes to a close, Kavanaugh, Baker and Pilchik look forward to hopefully continuing the production of the podcast if funding and staffing allow. Regardless, they hope their podcast is only the beginning of a dialogue among listeners about the suffering that wrongful convictions cause in the lives of innocent people, like Clay.

“We want the people who hear these stories to become conscious of the idea that there are problems with the criminal justice system — lots and lots of different problems,” Pilchik said. “We hope that this adds to the conversation and reminds people that the system doesn’t always work. It didn’t work for these people, and it got these cases very, very wrong in a way that took much too long.”