Tyrone Clark has spent most of his adult life behind bars for a 1973 Boston rape he always insisted he didn’t commit.
Now the 66-year-old Massachusetts prisoner may see freedom. Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins says she is seeking to vacate Clark’s rape conviction.
Rollins filed a motion on Friday in Suffolk County Superior Court supporting Clark’s petition for a new trial — citing concerns by the victim that she may have misidentified her attacker. In addition, Rollins cited the Commonwealth's failure to preserve key evidence that could have aided Clark's cause.
Rollins said if the court agrees to vacate the rape conviction, she will not prosecute.
At the same time Clark was convicted of rape, he was also found guilty of kidnapping and robbery. Those convictions, according to Rollins, would stand.
“We don't believe justice was done with respect to the rape charge,” Rollins said in a phone interview Monday.
The case is awaiting a new hearing in Suffolk County Superior Court.
Clark could not be immediately reached for comment. But in an in-person hour-long interview last week at the North Central Correctional Institute in Gardner, the bald, bespectacled prisoner said he was encouraged by support from the victim and what he understood, from his attorney, was the district attorney’s willingness to change her mind.
“I pray that it will work out,’’ Clark said. “I was never a person that committed this crime.”
The district attorney’s motion is a remarkable turnaround for Clark. Then 18 years old, Clark was charged with in the brutal rape, assault and kidnapping of Anne Kane in the Fenway nearly 50 years ago.
GBH News generally does not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission. But in an exclusive interview in July, Kane said that she wanted to speak publicly about her concerns that she may have identified the wrong man.
Clark is black and Kane is white. Kane, now 71, said that on the horrific day, she was trying not to look at her assailant. The Boston-area retiree said at the time she trusted the courts to provide a fair trial. Since then, however, Kane has learned about gaping flaws in the criminal justice system. She also worries that she knew very few black people at the time. This, she now thinks, impeded her ability to identify her attacker.
“It is a well proven fact at this point that eyewitness identification is incredibly unreliable, and I had no experience in differentiating black faces,” Kane said. “I can see how I might have been wrong.”
A National Problem
More than 2,851 people across the United States have been exonerated of their crimes since 1989, about a quarter involving mistaken identification, according to the California-based National Registry of Exonerations that tracks wrongful convictions.
But what makes the Clark case stand out, criminal justice specialists said, is a victim speaking out on the record about her doubts before the emergence of any new direct evidence that would question what she saw.
Jennifer Thompson, founder of a national nonprofit called Healing Justice focusing on the damages of wrongful convictions, said this is the first time she’s heard of a rape victim questioning her identification without DNA evidence to change her mind.
Thompson co-authored a book,“Picking Cotton,” which details the process that led her to misidentify the man who raped her at knifepoint in 1984 — leading to a wrongful conviction of an innocent man. She praised Kane for speaking out.
“This puts her on a bravery and courage scale that is pretty mind-numbing, for her to come forward and be able to talk about this,’’ said Thompson. “We should be listening to her.”
Clark first filed his motion for a new trial last year, citing — among other issues — some of Kane’s misgivings. The motion was rejected by Judge Christine Roach, following opposition from Rollins. Roach said in her written decision that she trusted that Kane was testifying “in good faith” in the 1970s as well as more recently. But, she said, she found the former statements to be “more reliable.”
Clark filed a new motion last month seeking to vacate only the rape charge arguing that the state has lost evidence for him to be able to prove his case. His attorney, Jeffrey Harris, wrote that he expected the Commonwealth to agree to the new pleadings.
A Multi-Year Effort
Harris has been fighting to prove Clark innocent since 2017 when he was first contacted by the Innocence Program, run out of the state’s Committee for Public Counsel Services. Harris says Clark has long fought to obtain DNA evidence to prove his innocence.
“He was convicted by an all-white jury based on cross-racial identifications,’’ Harris said. “It was 1973, the height of racism in Boston.”
Rollins said Clark’s case was reviewed by her office’s Integrity Review Bureau, which examines every stage of a prosecution from the building of a case to the conviction to the subsequent sentencing.
For the charge of rape, Clark was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
Rollins said Clark's sentence was “excessive" and may have been racially motivated.
“Life with the possibility of parole for a crime where the person lived is a very significant sentence,” Rollins said. “Hopefully he’ll be able to be released.”
Rollins cited a 2019 letter to the Massachusetts Parole Board and a 2020 letter to the court where Kane wrote she was concerned she may have identified the wrong man.
In addition, Rollins said that the Commonwealth erred in not preserving evidence from the scene, including semen and the victim’s underwear. That evidence, according to Rollins, could have helped Clark defend himself.
"Even at that time,” Rollins said such evidence was considered important.
“The defendant is prejudiced by the loss of the biological evidence,’’ she wrote in the motion. “No other forensic evidence has the potential to exonerate the defendant.’’
Kane said she long tried to put her traumatic experience behind her, instead, focusing on her career and her marriage. She kept her painful history a secret even to most of her closest friends.
But when Clark’s lawyer first reached out to her several years ago, Kane says she welcomed the inquiry. She long harbored doubts about Clark’s conviction, concerns that increased over time. She watched the movie, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” about the wrongful conviction of a black man. She listened to a radio program about a woman who learned later that a man she had identified was proven innocent through DNA.
“I had come over the years to a greater understanding of the state of injustice in the justice system and how difficult it is for African-Americans to get a fair trial,’’ she said. “There were things about the case that really bothered me.”
In her letter to the Parole Board, Kane wrote: “If Tyrone Clark were to be tried today, given the lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime, I doubt that he would be convicted. I fear that he may also be a victim.”
Kane agreed to speak to GBH News, requesting to withhold some details of her life to preserve a modicum of privacy. She said she grew up in a small rural town, graduated from college and moved to Boston to work, living by herself.
She detailed what she described in court testimony decades ago — how the assailant forced his way into her apartment, raped her, beat her and dragged her through the city in a 6 1/2-hour saga. They took a bus, ate a meal at a restaurant, spoke to some of his friends, she said, all the while she tried to get someone to help, her face bruised and bloodied.
Kane escaped after she ran into a Roxbury firehouse and grabbed onto the belt of a fireman begging for help. “It was a nightmare,” she said.
At first her assailant followed her into the firehouse, court records show. But he took off after a fireman said they would call in a police officer who was in the building.
At the trial, four firemen and a server at the restaurant identified Clark.
Kane now worries that they all picked the same man because he looked like the assailant without actually being him. Clark alleges in court records that the firemen only spent a few minutes with the attacker and the restaurant worker first saw Clark in the courthouse before identifying him in a photo lineup, tainting the process.
”If the picture that everybody saw was somebody who looked like him but was not necessarily him, we all would have identified the same person,’’ Kane said.
Unreliability Of Eyewitnesses
Sam Gross, founder and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, says it is not unusual for multiple witnesses to identify the wrong person. The registry has collected all known exonerations since 1989 and examines how they went wrong.
Mistakes are much more likely to be caught in rape cases, he said, because rapists usually leave semen which can be tested for DNA. In two thirds of such cases, exonerees were convicted largely by mistaken eyewitness identifications, he said. Of those, half were Black men who were convicted of assaulting white women, a racial combination that only occurs in a small minority of rape cases.
Gross says the country’s racial history has much responsibility to bear. But it doesn’t explain everything.
“The biggest cause is the great difficulty that white Americans have in correctly identifying black strangers,’’ he said.
Kane says a day after her assault she was invited to the Boston police headquarters to look at hundreds of mug shots. She didn’t recognize anybody.
A day later, she was invited back to look at 11 photos — and identified Clark. He’d been placed in the mix after being identified by an informant, court records show.
“It did seem to me that if this was a small pool, they must have some idea,’’ she said. “So I went through all the pictures and when I came to Tyrone Clark's picture, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut.”
But Kane said the first time she saw him in court, Clark didn’t look like her attacker. She says she first saw him while waiting for a probable cause hearing, and turned to a detective and said, “He looks so different.’’ She tried to quell her concerns when a detective told her: “They all look different when they are dressed up for trial.’’
Harris argued in a motion last year that this information was never relayed to the public defender -— but Judge Roach rejected the argument saying such information likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the case.
“You got the wrong person”
Tyrone Clark had a thick head of hair, hefty eyebrows and wide eyes set a distance apart when he was photographed and booked by the Boston police in June of 1973, three days after the assault.
Then 18 years old, Clark says he was living in a halfway house after serving six months for an assault charge. He had grown up in a series of foster homes before dropping out of school at 16, challenged by a learning disability.
Clark says he was completely confused the day of the arrest.
“I says, ‘You got the wrong person. I never did nothing,’’’ he said. “They told me to shut up, handcuffed me and took me to headquarters.”
Clark had several alibis, none of which convinced the jury. He speaks with a pronounced stutter that the victim did not describe at the time of the arrest. The jury found him guilty after about three hours of deliberations in January 1974, court records show.
Clark was released on parole in 2005 and sent back 14 months later after being caught stealing from a Roxbury store. Sitting on the grounds of the Gardner state prison, Clark said he deeply regrets that misstep and hopes that if he is eventually released he’ll be able to live out his days in a trouble-free life.
He says he feels only appreciation for Kane’s decision to speak out and feels only empathy for her situation.
“I feel sad concerning what happened to her back then,’’ he said. “But I feel good that she came forward. It took a lot of years to come forward.”