He Was Imprisoned For A Crime He Didn’t Commit. Now Free, Life Won’t Be Easy to Rebuild.

Chad Clay was imprisoned for three years before he was found innocent. Now he has rediscover how to live a normal life.

Chad Clay just moved into a home on the north side of Detroit. For the first time in nearly three years, he has a room of his own. 

His room is modest, but there’s a colorful display of hats and matching sneakers. His window faces south so the sunlight is brightest here. Looking out to his neighborhood, he can see abandoned homes, green grass and trees. 

“What I want to do is help these guys get through this hard transition period of coming home to nothing.” — Aaron Salter, Innocence Maintained 

It’s a stark contrast from the view Clay had one year ago. Back then, he was in prison at the Macomb Correctional Facility. There, he’s spent two years staring out onto a barbed wire fence.

Back then, “I was on 23 hour lockdown for 18 months on a Level 4 security,” Clay says. “I feel like I’ve come here and have peace. It’s like a sanctuary.”

It is a sanctuary, from imprisonment and from his past. He was released a year ago, early — because he was wrongfully convicted.

Warning: The following text and related audio story contains a description of sexual assault that some may find disturbing.

Courtesy James Chad Clay
Courtesy James Chad Clay

Clay is rebuilding his life through help of an organization called Innocence Maintained, a nonprofit to help exonerated prisoners, that sets them up with basics like food and shelter to help them get back on their feet. This house that Clay just moved into is part of that plan. 

“The main thing that I want this house to accomplish is to re-acclimate these guys back to society,” says Aaron Salter, who founded the organization and was wrongfully convicted and exonerated himself. “What I want to do is help these guys get through this hard transition period of coming home to nothing.”

Clay’s story’s complicated. Two and half years ago, police raided his mother’s home, looking for him. He turned himself in, and was told his DNA matched a crime that had been committed 20 years ago. Clay was accused of being a rapist. 

“I was overwhelmed and I was in shock,” he says today. “I was told I kidnapped this girl, took her to an alley, made her give me fellatio, and I had unprotected sex with her.”

He was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison for first degree criminal sexual conduct. His faith kept him afloat. And he spent the next 23 months fighting for his innocence. 

“I knew that the truth will come out eventually. I just did not know how long it will take.”

Click on the player above to hear how Chad Clay was wrongfully convicted, found innocent and is rebuilding his life.

This piece was produced by the Transom Traveling Workshop in Detroit, Mich.