In 2015, one of the 11,000 untested rape kits that had been discovered in a Detroit police warehouse was sent out for testing and returned a DNA match. James Chad-Lewis Clay was arrested, charged, convicted, and by 2017 had been sentenced to 25 to 50 years behind bars for the 1997 rape of a 15-year-old girl. There was just one—very big—problem: In 2019 the victim saw a photo of Clay when he was in high school and realized he was "Chad," a guy she had dated around the same time she was raped. They'd had consensual sex, explaining the presence of his DNA in her rape kit. Clay was released Tuesday, the Detroit Free Press reports, following the newspaper's investigation into the story. More:
- The victim, now 37, was raped by a man in an alley who threw a rag over her face and held a gun to her head. She had never seen the man before. She was surprised to be contacted about her rape kit nearly two decades later, but decided to proceed with pursuing the case in an effort to get closure.
- Authorities only showed the victim and Clay, now 38, recent photos of each other. Both said they didn't recognize the people in the photos. Clay asked detectives whether the photo he was looking at was from 1997; they did not reveal to him that it was from 2015, only saying that it was the closest they could get to a 1997 photo. Clay steadfastly maintained his innocence.
- When the victim learned Clay's full name, the name "Chad" clicked with her, and she remembered the teen she'd had a relationship with in high school. She told police about her memory and everything she could recall about Chad, in 2017, as Clay's case was winding its way through the system. But when police questioned Clay about what she had said, the details didn't sync; she had not remembered his exact age at the time, and she thought he lived at his aunt's house, while he gave police his mother's address.
- At a court hearing in 2017, Clay had his own realization: "I remembered her face. And knew who she was," he says. But at the same hearing, the victim, asked whether she knew Clay, said no.
- Before and during his sentencing, Clay told the judge he recognized the woman as his teenage girlfriend, and that they simply hadn't recognized each other 20 years later. His lawyer appealed his conviction, and in 2018, Clay filed a brief with the court that included pictures of his aunt's house, the one the victim had mentioned to police, as well as a photo of the mutual friend she said introduced them.
- But it wasn't until Clay's mother hired a private investigator this year that things really came together: The PI procured photos of Clay as a teenager and showed them to the victim. "You could see it hit her like a brick wall," the PI says of her realization.
- In February of this year, the victim wrote a statement declaring, "The James Clay that is in prison for my rape was my boyfriend in high school who went by the name Chad." A month after the Free Press contacted prosecutors about the victim's recollections, the wheels were put into motion to get Clay freed. Ultimately, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered his release.
- During the year-plus that he spent in prison, Clay missed the birth of his first grandchild and some of his children's high school graduations, WXYZ reports. "To be free from this nightmare is amazing," he said after being released.
- The victim has regrets: "Right now I wish [the rape kit] was still on that shelf. I wish I could go back to the first day I got the phone call [from police about pursuing the case] 'cause I would have told them no."
- As for the real culprit, there was unidentified DNA in the victim's rape kit as well. The sample was so small it required specialized testing, which Clay's defense requested; the judge at his trial denied the request, the Washington Post reports. It is still not clear whose DNA that is.
- And as for what happens next for Clay, he was released on a personal bond. His case will be sent back to Wayne County Circuit Court, where it will be decided whether he will get a new trial.
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