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James Watson, In Prison 41 Years, Free After Charges Dropped

James Watson, who was freed from prison after 41 years.
Barb Munro
James Watson, who was freed from prison after 41 years.

A Massachusetts man imprisoned for four decades on murder charges is free, now that a judge granted him a new trial and the district attorney dropped all charges. 

James Watson was convicted in the 1979 killing of a Boston cab driver, Jeffrey Boyajian. 

Key testimony came from an eyewitness whom police said they hypnotized. Watson’s lawyers have argued that testimony and other evidence was unreliable and — in some cases — coerced.

Watson, who’s always claimed his innocence, has been out of prison since April. A judge had ruled he could stay on the outside while his case was pending, because he was considered high risk for COVID-19 in prison.

Now he’s officially free. 

“The foot is off my neck,” Watson said in an interview Thursday, “but the memory is on my brain forever, what they did to me from beginning to end.”

Watson spent many hours in the prison law library while he was incarcerated and had long tried to interest appellate lawyers to fight for his release. 

Attorneys Barbara Munro and Madeline Weaver Blanchette, with help from the New England Innocence Project and other groups, had taken on Watson’s case in recent years, claiming police and prosecutorial misconduct. 

On November 5, Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Christine Roach ruled that Watson deserved a new trial. 

Following the judge’s decision, District Attorney Rachael Rollins decided not to pursue any more charges against Watson.

“Upon review of the evidence, including that advanced by the defendant in his motion and that gathered by the Commonwealth after receiving the motion, and after extensive investigation and scrutiny by this office’s Integrity Review Bureau, the Commonwealth has concluded that the interests of justice would not be served by the prosecution of this case,” Rollins wrote. 

Newly released from prison in April 2020, James Watson is flanked by his lawyers, Madeline Weaver Blanchette (left) and Barb Munro.
Credit Courtesy of Barb Munro
Barb Munro
Newly released from prison in April 2020, James Watson is flanked by his lawyers, Madeline Weaver Blanchette (left) and Barb Munro.

Watson’s co-defendant, Fred Clay, was released in 2017. He won a $1 million settlement from the state for wrongful conviction, and recently settled with the city of Boston for $3.1 million

Munro said she hasn’t yet talked with Watson about whether he will sue for compensation, but she expects he will.

Watson said he blames the legal system — and those involved in his case — for his lost decades.

“It's the way they went about doing it that was outrageous,” he said. “You know, somebody knows that they make a mistake and continue to make it, especially on a human being.”

Since his release, Watson has been living with his sister and spending time with his adult son, whom he helped raised from prison. Watson said the freedom is tangible. 

“Just to be able to walk down the street. Just to be able to walk with no shackles, no cuffs, nobody telling me, 'You can't go here, you can't go there, turn right, turn left, stand still,'” Watson said. “You know, it's amazing.”

But at the same time, Watson said he can't entirely relax knowing he could be falsely accused again.

“I'm not a small guy, you know? I stick out,” he said. “"How I stuck out back in 1979, I don't know.”

Watson’s son, Donjuan Moses, said he considers his father a role model. He has been waiting for this moment since Watson went to prison 41 years ago.

“Last night was like history,” Moses said after the latest ruling. “All the men of this family were together and we felt like we was on cloud nine and happy.”

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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