You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Detroit rape victim: Wrong man may be in prison for my assault

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 7/20/2019 Elisha Anderson
a man posing for the camera © Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

Nearly two decades had passed by the time Detroit police questioned James Clay in a 1997 rape case. 

DNA linked him to the victim, but when police showed Clay a recent picture of the woman, he denied ever having seen her. 

Clay found himself charged, then convicted of the crime, largely based on DNA evidence. 

He insists he's not responsible. 

An unusual twist means his case is getting a second look: The victim now says she and the accused once knew each other — intimately — around the time she was raped. Time had simply dulled her memory. 

Police didn’t talk to Clay for so many years because after the victim reported being sexually assaulted, her rape kit languished untested at a property storage facility, part of a group of 11,000 discovered in 2009.

Clay, now 38, and the victim, now 37, said during the long period the case remained unsolved their memories faded and appearances changed, contributing to them not recognizing each other in time to prevent the conviction. 

After being contacted by the Free Press, and being told of the victim's new claims, prosecutors began reviewing the case. Wayne County prosecutors and the defense filed new documents Thursday, attempting to free Clay.

“When we were informed by the Free Press of the identity issue in the case (the prosecutor's office) immediately began an investigation. It should be completed in the near future," said prosecutor's office spokeswoman Maria Miller.

"Based upon our findings so far, we have determined that it is in the best interests of justice to move the court to have Mr. Clay immediately released on a personal recognizance bond until the investigation concludes. ... We have filed an emergency appeal to be heard by the Michigan Court of Appeals, and hope this will be resolved expeditiously.”

Two decades earlier, in an alley ...  

The attack occurred in an alley on the city’s east side in 1997 near Hayes Street and Harper Avenue.

The victim, then 15, told police a man jumped out after she left a store, put a rag over her head and a gun to her head. He dragged her into the alley and raped her, she said.

The Free Press generally doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault. She described her attacker as a black man, about 20, 5 feet 11 and about 165 pounds. He had a mustache and said his name was Fred.

The teen told police she had not seen him before.

After it happened, the girl’s mother described her daughter as hysterical and in a state of shock.

The teen underwent a sexual assault examination at St. John Hospital, but then the evidence sat in a Detroit Police facility with thousands of other untested kits discovered in 2009. A federal grant provided money to test it years later.

DNA found inside the victim matched Clay. He had a previous felony conviction and his DNA had been entered into a national database used by law enforcement.

The woman said she was surprised when police eventually contacted her about the case. She decided to proceed with it hoping to finally get closure.

Police showed her six head shots of males. She didn’t pick anyone out of the group. She recalled in an interview with the Free Press in June at her Detroit home that one person had facial features that looked familiar, but she didn’t know why.

When the case reopened, so did traumatic memories she spent years trying to block.

 “It was like a pain just came back,” she said. “You bury it for so long.”   

'I don't know her'

Several months after the victim talked to police in 2017, police questioned Clay. 

He was adamant to the cops he didn’t know the woman they showed him in a photograph, saying it over and over again during his videotaped interrogation.

“I don’t know her. I don’t know her. That’s my statement,” Clay said. “I do not know her. I never saw her a day in my life.”

The picture police showed him was taken in 2015, about 18 years after the rape they were investigating. 

Clay, who would have been 16 when it happened, said during the interview he never forced anyone to have sex and never owned a gun.

He told police he never heard of anybody with the victim’s name and said investigators had the wrong man. 

When police told Clay his DNA was in the victim, he smacked the table and jumped up from his seat. 

“It’s impossible. I don’t even know this woman,” Clay said. “It’s impossible for my DNA to come up in her.”  

Later in the interrogation, Clay, who didn't have an attorney with him, asked police whether the picture he had seen was taken in 1997. The officer in charge replied it was the closest picture she could get.

At one point Clay said she looked familiar, but he remained steadfast that he never had sex with the person in the picture.

DNA from vaginal swabs that were part of the rape kit connected him to the victim and authorities charged Clay with the sexual assault.  

“I couldn’t believe it,” he told the Free Press. “It was like a nightmare.”

Something clicks with the victim

As the case progressed through court in 2017, the victim got a document in the mail, and she noticed the defendant’s name: James Chad-Lewis Clay. 

“Chad just stuck to me,” she recalled. “Like, I know a Chad.”

She said she called the officer in charge of the case to tell her about a Chad she knew when she was in high school. He didn't go to her school, but the two had been intimate back then, she told police in a signed statement dated Aug. 11, 2017.

Police asked her questions, but after so much time, she could remember only bits and pieces from that period in her life. 

She said she didn’t remember Chad’s last name but explained she met him through a friend named Dion. 

Chad, she told police, stayed with his aunt on the far east side between Warren and Mack avenues in a red brick home. They skipped school there, she said. 

Dion stayed across the street in a white house, went to nearby Finney High School with the victim and played on the basketball team, her police statement said. She couldn’t remember Dion’s last name but described him as 5 feet 2 with green eyes.

The woman told police her family never met Chad and she never met Chad’s aunt. Chad, she said, was about 18 or 19 then and didn’t go to school. She also told police about a scar on her hand from being burned. 

“I never held nothing back,” she said of her conversations with police.

More denials, and then, a memory

Police visited Clay in jail hours after taking the woman’s statement and started asking him questions.

Clay gave information that didn’t match what the victim had told police.

He said he lived with his mother growing up and believed he lived in Roseville at 16.

He denied ever having sex with a woman with the victim’s first name, said he never had sex with a girl with a scar and didn’t know a Dion, according to his police statement. 

Clay never offered that his aunt once lived on Somerset Avenue located between Warren and Mack.

The criminal case against Clay, who has been called Chad his entire life, proceeded.

During a court hearing in 2017, Clay said, he had a revelation about the victim.

“That’s when I remembered her face,” Clay said in an interview with the Free Press. “And knew who she was.” 

The woman, he said, had been his girlfriend 20 years earlier.

But there was a problem. She said in court that she didn’t recognize him.

“Do you see the man in the colored jumpsuit sitting next to defense counsel here … have you ever had consensual sex with that man?” Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Stephanie Capuzzi asked during the hearing. 

“No,” she replied. 

Case goes to trial

Clay's assertion that he once knew the victim appears to have come up during a later hearing, a transcript shows. The discussion between Clay's attorney, the prosecutor and the judge isn't detailed in the transcript, but the judge ended up limiting what could be told to the jury. 

Clay repeatedly rejected plea offers, and his trial began in November 2017.

The victim was the first person to testify. She began hyperventilating on the stand as she recalled being sexually assaulted in the alley.

When the attack was over, her rapist told her to run the opposite way, she testified. An ambulance took her to the hospital where she underwent an examination that would produce the rape kit.

She again testified that she never had consensual sex with Clay. 

She also said she knew a Chad in high school and said she would have recognized his voice if he were the person who raped her. 

“The person who took you in the alley, was that the Chad that you knew?” Clay's attorney, Dionne Webster-Cox asked.

“No,” she responded.

The defense questioned her recall, pointing out that her version in 2017 of what happened to her varied from her account two decades earlier. Details were different, such as whether a cloth had been put over her eyes, whether she had been forced to perform oral sex and whether the gun had been put to her head or back.  

Detroit Police detective Janet Sise Patuna, the officer in charge of the case who was called by the prosecution, said inconsistencies are not uncommon for people who have experienced traumatic situations.

The defense hammered at the police’s decision to show Clay a 2015 picture of the woman during his interview with them.

Patuna testified the photo obtained from a police database was the closest to 1997 that she could find but acknowledged she never asked the victim for any older photos. 

The Free Press has been unable to reach Patuna though several attempts were made. A police spokeswoman said she has since retired from the police department.

DNA evidence was crucial in the case.

Expert witnesses testified Clay’s DNA was present in the rape kit as was unidentified DNA. It remains unknown who the other DNA came from. 

Lawyers grilled expert witnesses about possibilities. According to the testimony, the unidentified DNA could have come from the victim, a nurse during the exam or another person.

No more testing was done on it because the sample was too small, Heather Goff, an expert in DNA analysis and testing, told the jury.

The defense requested specialized testing before the case went to trial, but couldn't convince the judge.

Clay never took the stand, and the defense called no witnesses. The victim had remained steadfast at trial that she did not know him. 

During closing arguments, the prosecution referred to Clay’s interview with police and reminded jurors that he had said more than two dozen times on video that he did not know the victim. 

"How did his DNA get inside the victim?" Capuzzi asked. "It's not magic. ... It's because he raped (her) that night."

Capuzzi told the jury the victim couldn’t identify her rapist, but the DNA identified Clay as that person.

The defense told jurors during closing arguments that Clay was not responsible for what happened in the alley and said more should have been done to determine where the other DNA came from, like specialized testing. 

“How much is it worth to test the minor portion to see what’s going on? To not convict the wrong person? How much is that worth? It’s priceless," Webster-Cox told jurors. "To get the right information. To make sure we know what’s going on. … The technology is available. Let’s use it."

Jurors never heard that Clay recognized the woman as his former girlfriend when he saw her in court.  

After several hours of deliberations, the jury returned its verdict: guilty of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. 

"It was the DNA that was central to the finding of guilt," the jury foreman told the Free Press recently.

Before sentencing, Clay sent a handwritten letter to the judge who had presided over his trial, explaining how his DNA ended up in the victim's body and why he had not recognized the woman when police questioned him.

“This must be the worst anyone can possibly feel, a guilty verdict of a crime I didn’t even do,” Clay wrote. “Makes me feel as if I’m being (buried) yet still alive, a drowning feeling with no escape.”

He closed the letter saying: “I pray and hope the truth comes out. … I am not responsible for this terrible crime.”  

At his sentencing, when Clay was given a chance to speak, he repeated some of what he had written to the judge and called the victim his teenage girlfriend. 

He said he was sorry he hadn't recognized her from the photo police had showed him and that she didn’t recognize him after 20 years.

“I’m an innocent man being put away in prison,” Clay proclaimed.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Wanda Evans sentenced him to 25-50 years. She did not return Free Press messages to talk about the case. 

Appeal is pending

Clay’s appellate attorney, Melvin Houston, appealed the conviction the following year.  

Then Clay filed his own brief with the higher court in late 2018. He said he had an intimate relationship with the victim and attached pictures of his aunt’s house, consistent with the one the victim had told police about. He also provided a photo of the mutual friend the victim had identified to police as "Dion."

Earlier this year, Clay’s mother, Ethel Marie Lyons, hired a private investigator, Steve Crane. She provided Crane pictures of what her son looked like when he was younger and asked him to see whether the woman remembered dating Chad around the time she was raped.

a person sitting on a bed: Ethel "Marie" Lyons talks her son James Clay, who is in prison for a 1997 sexual assault he maintains he did not commit, at her home in Roseville on Friday, June 7, 2019. A Wayne County jury convicted Clay in 2017 and he is serving a 25-50 years sentence. Lyons hired a private investigator to look into the case. © Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press Ethel "Marie" Lyons talks her son James Clay, who is in prison for a 1997 sexual assault he maintains he did not commit, at her home in Roseville on Friday, June 7, 2019. A Wayne County jury convicted Clay in 2017 and he is serving a 25-50 years sentence. Lyons hired a private investigator to look into the case.

Crane, owner of ACS Professional Investigations in West Bloomfield, tracked the woman down and showed her a picture of the home on Somerset where Clay’s aunt used to live, which she recognized as the house where they had skipped school, he said.

She also recognized Clay from a picture taken when he was younger and called him Chad, her high school boyfriend, Crane's report said. 

Soon after, it clicked that Chad and Clay were the same person, Crane said. 

“You could see it hit her like a brick wall,” he told the Free Press.

Several days later, on Feb. 28, she wrote a statement explaining what happened. As time passed, she wrote, names and faces of people she knew 20 years ago faded and she no longer recognized the adult Clay as the Chad she knew from her high school days.

“The James Clay that is in prison for my rape was my boyfriend in high school who went by the name Chad,” the woman wrote.

The woman told the Free Press she recalled hanging out with Chad when she skipped school and said her relationship with him occurred around the time she was raped. 

But she wasn’t able to recall whether they were still dating when she was sexually assaulted. After her rape, she said she moved out of state to live with her dad. High school was the last time she talked to Chad, she said.

a close up of a piece of paper: The victim in the case wrote a statement on Feb. 28, 2019. She explained as time passed, names and faces of people she had known two decades earlier faded and she no longer recognized the adult Clay as the Chad she knew from high school. © PORTION OF STATEMENT The victim in the case wrote a statement on Feb. 28, 2019. She explained as time passed, names and faces of people she had known two decades earlier faded and she no longer recognized the adult Clay as the Chad she knew from high school.

Lyons, Clay's mom, acknowledged her son's past — he has a felony involving a stolen car and misdemeanor domestic violence — but she said she is convinced he is innocent of rape. 

“If he was not, then he would need to be in prison,” she said. 

Lyons said she hoped Prosecutor Kym Worthy heard about the case and reviewed it. 

Webster-Cox, Clay’s attorney during the trial, called the revelation that the woman recognized Clay, “a game changer.” 

'I just feel like somebody dropped the ball'

In June, Dyeon “Dee” McIntyre, 38, took a break from working on a car at his Clinton Township home to talk to a reporter.  

a man wearing a hat and smiling at the camera: Dyeon McIntyre said police never talked to him in 2017. He talked to the Free Press in June 2019. © Elisha Anderson, Detroit Free Press Dyeon McIntyre said police never talked to him in 2017. He talked to the Free Press in June 2019.

He said police never talked to him during their investigation in 2017. 

“A case this serious, I just feel like somebody dropped the ball," he said.

McIntyre, whose first name is pronounced DYE-on, matches the description of the "Dion" who the victim told police was a mutual friend of hers and "Chad." McIntyre went to Finney, is about 5 feet 1 and has distinct green eyes. He said he played basketball in the neighborhood, but not on his high school basketball team.

He told the Free Press a woman with the first name as the victim did date Chad in high school. Sometimes, they all hung out together. 

A reporter showed McIntyre a recent Michigan Department of Corrections picture of Clay.

“That’s Chad,” he said, peering at the photo on the reporter's cellphone. 

McIntyre lived in a white house on Somerset in high school and said Chad’s aunt lived across the street.

Alberta Steed, Clay’s aunt, confirmed she once lived on Somerset.

“Chad was in and out of my house all the time,” she told the Free Press during a phone interview. 

Will new information matter?

Clay, who is in the Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township, said he hopes the new information in his case will free him.

“I pray at the end of the day, I can return to my children and my loved ones,” Clay wrote to the Free Press.

That may be happening soon.  A last-minute hearing was held in Wayne County Circuit Court on Thursday morning, a month after the Free Press first contacted prosecutors about the victim's recollections. 

Given the new information, prosecutors and Clay’s attorney asked the circuit court judge to release Clay on a personal bond “in the interest of justice,” a court document said. The request was denied. No reason was provided on the judge's order. 

Later Thursday, prosecutors and Clay's defense attorney filed several motions with the Michigan Court of Appeals, attempting to get Clay released.

“The parties have requested immediate action because this new information seriously calls into question the integrity of defendant’s conviction,” a joint motion filed with the Michigan Court of Appeals on Thursday afternoon said. 

Last month, the Free Press questioned Clay about the discrepancies in what he told police and what he says now and why he didn’t tell police that his aunt once lived on Somerset.

“I was in a state of shock,” he said, later adding his mind was blank. 

When the Free Press asked the victim in the case why she had not recognized Clay in court, she said she was in tears, afraid and focused on her husband.

She repeatedly said she doesn’t believe Chad raped her, adding she wants him to be released.

“I truly believe in my heart Chad didn’t hurt me,” she told the Free Press. 

But at times during the interview, she waffled and said she'd like Clay to take a lie detector test.

“Anybody could say anything right now when they’re in trouble," she said of him. "I just want the truth.” 

She hates that so much time has passed. It’s hard to remember details from so long ago, but old pictures help.

When the Free Press visited her Detroit home and showed her a picture of Clay as a teenager, provided by his mother, the woman identified him as Chad. 

She also recognized the person she referred to as Dion during a police interview from a picture in a 1998 high school yearbook the Free Press showed her.

“I know by them eyes,” she said of the black and white photo. 

She wishes she would have seen the photos that jogged her memory earlier. 

Although she pursued the criminal case in 2017 hoping to get closure, she said it hasn't come.

She refuses to go outside in the dark alone and crosses the road if she sees a man approach. She dreads sleeping. When she falls asleep, she has nightmares of being hurt.

Police gave the woman the option if she wanted to proceed in 2017. At the time, she said yes. If asked again, she would make a different choice. 

“Right now I wish (the rape kit) was still on that shelf,” she said last month. “I wish I could go back to the first day I got the phone call 'cause I would have told them no.”  

Free Press staff writers Jennifer Dixon and Tresa Baldas contributed to this report.

Timeline in case

November 1997: A 15-year-old girl tells police a man raped her in an alley on Detroit’s east side. She is taken to a hospital for an examination. Her rape kit is stored away. 

2009: The woman’s untested kit, ignored for years, is discovered in a Detroit Police property storage facility with more than 11,000 others. 

2015: The rape kit is finally tested, according to a lab document. Eventually, James Chad-Lewis Clay’s DNA, which had been entered in a national database after an earlier conviction, is found in vaginal swabs. 

March 2017: Police show the victim pictures of six males, including Clay. She does not identify her rapist from the pictures.

Aug. 4, 2017: Police question Clay and show him a picture of the woman taken in 2015, about 18 years after the assault. Clay tells police repeatedly that he does not know the woman and never had sex with her. He's arraigned on sexual assault charges. 

Aug. 11, 2017: The woman tells police she was intimate with a guy named Chad in high school. Police talk to Clay, who maintains he never had sex with a woman with the victim’s first name.

Aug. 16, 2017: During a preliminary hearing, the woman testifies she never had consensual sex with Clay. Clay says it was during that hearing that he recognized the victim as his former girlfriend. 

Nov. 7, 2017: The victim maintains during Clay’s trial that they never had consensual sex. Experts in DNA analysis testify that besides Clay’s DNA, there is unidentified DNA also present.

Nov. 9, 2017: The jury convicts Clay of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. 

Dec. 7,  2017: Wayne County Circuit Judge Wanda Evans sentences Clay to 25-50 years in prison.

Feb. 23, 2019: A private investigator shows the victim a photo of Clay when he was younger. She identifies him as her high school boyfriend. 

Feb. 28, 2019:  The woman writes a statement saying she doesn’t believe Clay raped her. 

June 7, 2019: The Free Press interviews the victim in the case at her home.

June 10, 2019: The Free Press interviews Clay in prison on the phone.

June 11, 2019: The Free Press talks to the prosecutor’s office about victim's revelation and asks questions about the case. Prosecutors launch a review.  

July 18, 2019: The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office seeks Clay's release. 

By the numbers

Untested rape kits discovered in 2009 and later tested: About 11,000

Cases being actively investigated: 211

Cases waiting to be investigated: 389

Competed investigations: 3,123

Convictions: 191

Source: Wayne County Prosecutor's Office. Numbers as of July 3, 2019.


This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit rape victim: Wrong man may be in prison for my assault


More from Detroit Free Press

Detroit Free Press
Detroit Free Press
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon