DNA put him behind bars for a 1997 rape. Then his old girlfriend saw a photo that set him free

Elisha Anderson

DETROIT — A man convicted of raping a teen on Detroit's east side — largely due to DNA evidence — was freed from prison following an investigation into his case by The Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network.

On Monday, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered the release of James Chad-Lewis Clay, who was sentenced to 25-50 years in prison for a crime he insists he did not commit two decades ago.

“To be free from this nightmare is amazing,” he said moments after walking out of the Macomb Correctional Facility on Tuesday. “It’s the best feeling to be able to go home to my children and my mother. I couldn’t ask for more.”

In 2017, a jury convicted Clay of raping a teenager in an alley on Detroit’s east side 20 years beforehand.  DNA found inside the victim matched him, leading to a guilty verdict. 

When the rape victim had testified earlier, she didn’t recognize Clay from their teen years and said they never had consensual sex.

Then, earlier this year, she was shown a picture of what Clay looked like when he was younger. She recognized him as a young man she dated in high school around the time she was raped.

They had consensual sex, she said. 

(USA TODAY does not generally identify victims of sexual assault.)

Read the investigation:Wrong man may be in prison, rape victim says

After being contacted by a journalist about the case's twist, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office immediately launched an investigation. Prosecutors sought Clay’s release from prison last week along with the defense attorney.

On Monday, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered his release.

“This new information seriously calls into question the integrity of defendant’s conviction,” a court document filed by prosecutors and the defense said.

Clay’s mother, Ethel Marie Lyons, said she was "elated" when told of the court's decision. “My heart is just like flipping up and down," she said.

The case took 20 years to go to trial because after the 1997 attack, the teen’s untested rape kit languished at a police property storage facility, part of a group of 11,000 discovered in 2009. Eventually, it was tested. 

James Chad-Lewis Clay takes his belongs as leaves the Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox, Tuesday, July 23, 2019.

When police investigated the case about two decades later, neither Clay nor the victim — both now in their late 30s — identified the other from the picture investigators showed them. 

The photo police showed Clay of the victim was taken in 2015, about 18 years after he said he last saw her. 

The victim was shown six head shot pictures, including one of Clay, and didn’t pick anyone out. One person had facial features that looked familiar, but she didn’t know why, she told a journalist. 

The victim told police about her relationship with in high school with "Chad," the name Clay has been called his entire life. But Clay maintained he hadn’t had sex with anyone with the victim’s name, and his details didn’t match what the victim told police about Chad. 

His case moved through the court system. Then Clay saw the woman in court: He told a journalist he recognized her as a teenage girlfriend.

James Chad-Lewis Clay, center left, with his brother Jeremy Lyons, left, mother Ethel Marie Lyons, and god brother Dimitri Parker, FaceTime their family and friends after Clay was released from the Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox, Tuesday, July 23, 2019.

But the jury never heard that detail because Clay never testified.

What the jury did hear: Clay repeatedly told police in a videotaped interrogation that he didn’t know the woman and never had sex with her.

Yet DNA linked the pair, and Clay was sentenced to prison in 2017.

And now he's been released.

Clay's case will be sent back to Wayne County Circuit Court for a hearing and decision on whether he’ll get a new trial, the order from to appeals court said. 

As he left prison Tuesday on a personal bond, Clay thanked the rape victim for her courage to speak out about what happened. He also private investigator Steve Crane, who worked on the case, and the Free Press.

“It took for the media to get involved to get this case resolved,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the media, I would’ve still been in prison.”

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Prisoner released: James Clay freed after rape victim's revelation