From left to right: Don Juan Moses, John Nardizzi, and James J. Watson celebrate Watson's release. (Courtesy of John Nardizzi)

Nahant investigator helps free man wrongly convicted of murder 41 years ago

NAHANT -- After serving 41 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, James J. Watson is finally a free man. 

Thanks to the help of Nahant investigator John Nardizzi with the New England Innocence Project, Watson, who was one of two men convicted in the 1979 murder of 28-year-old Swampscott cab driver Jeffrey Boyajian, had his conviction formally overturned in November after courts found witness statements used during his trial to be unreliable. 

“I’m feeling pretty good,” said Watson, 61, during a phone interview near his Somerville home late last month. “But it’s bittersweet because a lot of people aren’t here to celebrate with me.”

When he thinks back to the day he was arrested more than four decades ago, Watson, just 20 years old at the time, remembers hearing a knock at the door of his Roslindale apartment. 

Two officers stood in the doorway. 

“I had my baby son in my arms. They looked me right in my face and told me to come down to the station. ‘We’ll bring you right back,’” Watson said. “(My family and I) were about to do some early Christmas shopping, which made it even worse, you know?”

After multiple hours-long interrogation sessions, police informed Watson he was under arrest. 

“They kept trying to ask me what went wrong, asking if things got out of hand,” he said. “And I’m saying, ‘what are you saying? I just told you I wasn’t present.’ I was asleep when it happened at four in the morning. I was in la la land somewhere.”

Two years later, in 1981, a jury sentenced Watson, along with his co-defendant, Frederick Clay, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

After serving 38 years behind bars for Boyajian’s killing, Clay, who also maintained his innocence for decades, was officially exonerated in 2017. Watson’s case still hung in the balance, however, until a legal team came together to exonerate him. 

Innocence Project Director Radha Natarajan and Lisa Kavanaugh of the public defender’s office were aware of Fred Clay’s case, and knowing there was a second defendant, the two put together a strong legal team -- which included Nardizzi and Watson’s own attorney, Barbara Munro -- to review Watson’s conviction. 

His case was also supported by Katharine Naples-Mitchell, of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, who filed an amicus brief in support of Watson. 

Three years later, on Nov. 5, 2020, Watson’s conviction was finally overturned after officials who re-examined his case took issue with a previously recanted witness statement, as well as the use of hypnosis to obtain statements from additional witnesses -- a method widely considered unreliable today. 

“The greatest injustice is to take an innocent man away from his son and family,” Munro said in a statement. “This could have been prevented here if the then-prosecutor had not withheld from the defense the fact that the eyewitnesses were hypnotized prior to their identifications of Mr. Watson, rendering them unreliable.”

Nardizzi also credited staff investigator Jill Vaglica with conducting several important witness interviews in the Watson case.

“These cases are very, very challenging because they’re so old. You have to be innovative and creative in figuring out ways to get evidence,” he said. “Jimmy has a special strength to make it this far with mind, body, and soul intact.” 

Nardizzi, who has worked with the Innocence Project for more than 15 years, said he’s glad to see the program receive more attention. 

“People started to realize that people aren’t just getting off on technicalities -- these are actually innocent people in prison due to many factors. There’s been a real awareness brought to the public front.”

He later added: “You’re doing good for somebody. It’s an incredibly emotional experience.

“I’ll never forget that day (Watson was released). Seeing this guy with his family -- there were people crying and hugging us … we went shopping with his son, and the two of them were just so happy.”

While he may now be a free man, Watson acknowledges no amount of compensation can ever make up for the years lost and lives permanently altered. 

In particular, he thinks of the son he was forced to leave behind: Don Juan Moses, now 42. 

Despite the difficult circumstances, Watson said he made sure he always remained a fixture in Don Juan’s life, even as the young boy lived in foster care. 

“I had to (stay in touch) by telephone and birthday cards,” he said. “The last time I’d seen him was (when I was at) Norfolk State Penitentiary when he was six years old. I didn’t see him again until he was 18 or 19, but I stayed in contact with him as much as I could.”

The two would talk about “anything and everything” over the phone, he said, and Watson encouraged his son, who is now a certified nursing assistant and actor, to stay in school and keep his head up. 

“‘Make daddy proud. I’m proud of you,’” Watson remembers saying. “I kept his spirits up, letting him know it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. ‘I can talk to you. I can see you every now and again.’ But it was hard.”

As now he struggles to adjust to life on the outside, Watson said he considers himself a victim of a broken system that disproportionately targets Black and low-income communities.  

“I woke up one morning and I ended up on trial for the murder of a cab driver because I was Black, didn’t have an alibi, and wasn’t rich,” he said. “They did what they wanted to do with me.”

However, the knowledge of his innocence, along with unyielding patience, was what ultimately saw him through. 

“No matter how bad or good or dangerous the situation is, if you don’t have patience, a lot of things can go wrong,” he said. “Patience is power. If you have no patience, you’re not going to make it anywhere.”

Elyse Carmosino can be reached at

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