Associated Press

April 29, 2008

Dallas man freed by DNA testing after 27 years in prison

By SCHUYLER DIXON  and JEFF CARLTON Associated Press Writera

DALLAS — James Lee Woodard could have been out of prison long ago, had he just confessed to a parole board that he was guilty of killing his girlfriend in 1980.

But the convicted Dallas man eventually stopped attending those hearings rather than admit to something he said he didn't do. Instead, he waited 27 years until a judge on Tuesday made him the nation's longest-serving inmate to be freed as a result of DNA testing.

"It says a lot about your character that you were more interested in the truth than your freedom," state District Judge Mark Stoltz told Woodard after making his ruling, which must be formalized by an appeals court or a pardon from Gov. Rick Perry.

Woodard, jailed since New Year's Day 1981 after his girlfriend was raped and murdered, became the 18th person in Dallas County to have his conviction cast aside. That's more than any other county in the nation, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions.

Wearing a purple shirt and tie with a black sport coat, Woodard stepped out of the courtroom and raised his arms to a throng of photographers. Supporters and others in a crowded hall outside the court erupted in applause.

"I thank God for the existence of the Innocence Project," Woodard, 55, told the court. "Without that, I wouldn't be here today. I would be wasting away in prison."

Woodard was jailed in January 1981 and sentenced to life in prison in July 1981 for the murder of a Dallas woman found sexually assaulted and strangled near the banks of the Trinity River in 1980.

The boyfriend of the dead woman, Woodard was convicted primarily on the basis of testimony from two eyewitnesses, said Natalie Roetzel, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas. One has since recanted in an affidavit. As for the other, "we don't believe her testimony was accurate," Roetzel said.

Woodard had previous convictions for burglary, felony larceny, marijuana possession, driving under the influence and unauthorized use of a motorized vehicle, according to Texas online criminal records.

Woodard's journey from his incarceration to expected exoneration is more complicated than most.

Like nearly all of the exonorees, he has maintained his innocence throughout his time in prison. But after filing six writs with an appeals court, plus two requests for DNA testing, his pleas of innocence became so repetitive and routine that "the courthouse doors were eventually closed to him and he was labeled a writ abuser," Roetzel said.

As recently as 2004, a court without holding a hearing denied Woodard's request for DNA testing because prosecutors said there was no evidence to test, according to court documents.

"That was a lie," Blackburn said. "We discovered there was evidence to test. This proves that the callous and cavalier attitude of the court of criminal appeals and other courts in this state toward these kind of claims should come to an end."

In letter after letter written from prison, Woodard insisted he was innocent of his girlfriend's murder. In neat cursive written on lined paper, Woodard begged officials to reopen his case.

"My Social Status in society is below you but I think everyone is entitled to justice don't you?" he wrote to one law enforcement official in 1981.

In a 1984 letter, one of several he sent to former District Attorney Henry Wade, Woodard wrote: "I have appealed to you in every way I can and now I'm tired. You seem to be adamant in your decision not to investigate my case, but I won't give up until I get this thing out into the open because it's wrong for me to be here."

Woodard finally found a sympathetic audience in 2007. Watkins, the new district attorney, had begun a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, are reviewing hundreds of requests by convicts for DNA testing.

In October, Woodard's case caught the eye of a Texas Wesleyan law student working in the program. By December, DNA testing on semen from the sexual assault excluded Woodard as the perpetrator.

But the DNA test results did not immediately free Woodard. It absolved him of the rape. But he had been convicted of murder.

"The problem is they tried it as straight murder and not rape and murder," Roetzel said. "We had to able to tie the rape to the murder to get a post-conviction release."

Prosecutors at the time believed the rapist was also the murderer, Roetzel said. This year, a forensic pathologist who studied the DNA testing results, autopsy photos, the coroner's report and other evidence concluded the two crimes "were tied together in such a way that the rape results would conclusively show who the perpetrator was," Roetzel said.

Dallas County prosecutors agree with Woodard's lawyers that he would not have been convicted had this evidence been available in 1981.

"This is happening only because the Dallas DA established this program," Blackburn said. "There is no other county in the state that this could have happened in."

Overall, 31 people have been formally exonerated through DNA testing in Texas, also the most in the U.S. That does not include Woodard and at least three others whose exonerations are not yet official.

Like nearly all the exonorees, Woodard maintained his innocence throughout his time in prison. But seven letters to police and prosecutors, six writs with appeals courts and two requests for DNA testing went nowhere. Eventually, he was labeled an abuser of the system, according to the Innocence Project.

"On the first day he was arrested, he told the world he was innocent ... and nobody listened," said Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas.

Blackburn and prosecutors hailed Tuesday's hearing as a landmark moment of frequent adversaries working together.

Since the DNA evidence was tied to rape and Woodard was convicted of murder, Innocence Project attorneys had to prove that the same person committed both crimes. They said they couldn't have done that without access to evidence provided by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins' office.

"You've got to have very good lawyers with a lot of experience and skill ... working on both ends of this case, hard," Blackburn said. "And you've also got to have government power behind what you do."

Under Watkins, Dallas County has a program supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas that is reviewing hundreds of cases of convicts who have requested DNA testing to prove their innocence.

While the number of exonerations on Watkins' watch continues to grow, he said this one was a little different.

"I saw the human side of it, and seeing the human said of it just gives you more courage to advocate for issues like this," said Watkins, who had breakfast with Woodard on Tuesday morning. "It gives me that resolve to go even further to find out who (the killer) is so that we can get him into custody."

Woodard was sentenced to life in prison in July 1981 for the murder of a 21-year-old Dallas woman found sexually assaulted and strangled near the banks of the Trinity River.

He was convicted primarily on the basis of testimony from two eyewitnesses, said Natalie Roetzel, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas. One has since recanted and the accuracy of the other has been questioned, Roetzel said.

Four men previously exonerated in Dallas County cases attended the hearing for Woodard, who was presented $100 by one of them.

Woodard said his family was "small and scattered," although he pointed out a niece in the courtroom. He said his biggest regret was not being with his mother when she died while he was in prison.

"I can tell you what I'd like to do first: breathe fresh, free air," Woodard said during a news conference in the courtroom after the hearing. "I don't know what to expect. I haven't been in Dallas since buses were blue."

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