Wrongly Imprisoned, James Woodard Rediscovers Freedom
Finally out of prison after 27 years, Dallas County’s most famous exonoree, James Woodard, tries to get on with the life that was almost taken from him by win-at-all-costs prosecutors.
James Woodard is quiet for a minute, as he lights a cigarette with a disposable lighter. He’s careful with his Kool, exhaling downward into the kitchen sink, tapping the ashes into the drain. Gravity blends with the silence and the smoke in the little kitchen, because of who this man is and what he’s done and what has been done to him.
Woodard moved in last night, and it couldn’t have taken long, since his furniture consists of exactly one item, a futon, now folded up like a clam. The rest of his worldly possessions fit into five small cardboard boxes. You’ve seen his apartment if you’ve ever seen any apartment: beige carpet, refrigerator, paint, and linoleum; one bedroom; an L-shaped balcony outside a sliding glass door. The angry dents in the front door--there’s a story there--are barely obscured by a fresh coat of brown paint. A plastic bottle of Palmolive dish soap on the kitchen counter is emerald and somehow beautiful against all the earth tones.
In the living area hang three glass shelves designed for tchotchkes, now holding bottles of water labeled with the apartment’s name, The Landing at Bear Creek. It’s in Euless. It’s close to the airport. It’s not bad; there are live oak and gum trees, the grass is cut, and the planes taking off from DFW to the east fly low but they’re not deafening. The 20 or so red brick buildings in the complex look like mansions, Woodard had said to someone asking for directions, and he was not being ironic.
For the first half of his life, James Woodard may as well have been invisible. For the second half, he positively disappeared. But in the last three weeks, he’s been interviewed on 60 Minutes and by local TV and newspapers. CNN’s cameras peeked over his shoulder as he applied for a driver’s license. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, bless its bureaucratic heart, would not hurry up the process despite the obvious importance of this man. Woodard didn’t mind. Texas government had already wasted over 27 years of his time. What was a few days more?
"Yeah, there was television in prison," Woodard is saying. "But once you started watching, fiction and reality merged. I couldn’t imagine the world as it is. I saw a character on TV talking on a cell phone, but I didn’t realize everyone had a cell phone. TV prepares you from being shocked but not from being amazed.
"Imagine if you’d been asleep for 27 years. Everything has physically, literally, and figuratively changed."
Especially Dallas. All Woodard’s memories of his hometown predate 1981. And then, three weeks ago, everything was suddenly different. "When I saw the city--amazing. I know the direction--but it’s not there. I wasn’t prepared for that. It’s all apartment complexes and high-rises. I’m a stranger in my own city." Like other exonerees, Woodard is disoriented.
Exonerated. Dallas. DA. DNA. You’ve heard these words together. Of the 17 men from Dallas County whose convictions have been overturned in the past seven years, Woodard served the longest for a crime he had nothing to do with. He’s out because of five things: the hard work of the Innocence Project of Texas; the incontrovertibility of evidence based on deoxyribonucleic acid; the absolute fluke that this physical evidence was saved; the new district attorney, Craig Watkins; and Woodard’s own relentlessness. A web of malice and lies had put him in prison in the first place.
The daily insult of his existence for over two and a half decades changed him, made him a considerable man. Nothing he says or does for the rest of his life will be trivial.
This is the story of James Woodard.
Poets and songwriters offer a wide range of metaphors for the tick of the clock. Shakespeare compared time to a thief, a whirligig, and a noiseless foot, and to "waves toward a pebbled shore." Something in that last one works best for a lot of people. If time is the river we’re all floating in, powerful hands held Woodard underwater from age 28 until three weeks ago. He’ll be 56 in October.
James Lee Woodard was born at "old Parkland" in 1952, the son of Lorena and a no-account, hit-and-run man named K.C. "One of those secret family deals," Woodard says. "My father was never a force in my life. I saw him occasionally." Lorena, struggling financially to raise James and his little sister Youlanda on the slim wages of a maid at the Sheraton, surrendered her 5-year-old son to her parents. Maggie and Leo Woodard and their grandson lived at 939 Church Street in Oak Cliff. This chunk of Church is a dead end, about 300 yards long. A neighbor has spray painted "NO TRASPASIN" on the fence out front. It might have looked all right back then, but now it’s tumbledown homes and mobile homes made permanent, all hard by Interstate 35. The lot is vacant now, in spitting distance of the roaring highway. It’s bordered by a vintage blue Band-Aid box of a trailer on one side and by Mora’s Progressive Insurance Agency on the other.
"I always loved school," Woodard says. He attended N.W. Harlee Elementary and Franklin Delano Roosevelt Junior High. The teacher he remembers best is Mrs. Graham, who compelled her language arts students at Harlee to produce a 10-page paper, tough duty for fourth-graders. Little James tried to finesse the situation by writing in a very large hand, and with a great deal of space between words, but Mrs. Graham knew this game. She insisted that her students think and organize and produce something coherent. And thus began Woodard’s fondness for the written word and writing.
We’re eating lunch at Pappadeaux on Lemmon--Woodard and his saviors from the Innocence Project of Texas, Jeff Blackburn and Clay Graham. To complement his broiled shrimp and dirty rice, Woodard orders a glass of "dark wine," a phrase our server, Ivan, does not comprehend. He tries again, index finger on the wine list, asking for a Clos du Bois Merlot, pronouncing the phrase phonetically. "Close do boys mare lot." It works; Ivan brings the wine, and it is good.
Woodard looks fit but is far from jailhouse ripped. About average height, shaved head, sloped shoulders, dark dress slacks, and a new polo shirt. Arcing black eyebrows frame eyes that never look away. But his physical being is less powerful than the force of his personality; despite his mangled French, you can feel his intellect. Woodard is quoted verbatim herein. For example, he really did say that for him Dallas has changed "physically, literally, and figuratively." Even with that flourish, his utterances are seldom undermined by theatricality or by lack of noun-verb agreement. Our conversations undoubtedly presage a future of hearing "What’s it like to be out? What was it like to be in?" But for now, he is patient and sincere, and he reminisces easily about everything except one thing: the humiliating details of his life in a cage.
"At age 14, I turned rebellious," Woodard says. His sudden sass and independence made Grandpa feel too old to be a parent, so young James moved in with his mother and sister at their apartment in what Woodard calls "North Dallas," although today’s North Dallas is at least 10 miles north of the corner of State and Hall streets.
"It was a new way of living, period," he says. "The things I couldn’t do, I could do--staying out late, number one. I was starting to notice the other sex. This time was memorable. It was ’67, ’68, the first big years of integration. But integration was not a problem for me. I just like people. I don’t give a preference to a race."
He was a good-looking young man, a sharp dresser with his hair in a natural--an afro, that is, not too big, with substantial sideburns. "Clothes were a very important feature to operate in the country I was living in," Woodard says. "Clothes were your signature." His look matched his laid-back, muted personality: no suits, never any silk, and no loud colors. Good cotton or wool. He wore turtlenecks and tank tops over flares and platform heels, not too high. No peacock, he didn’t go for the puka shells, mood rings, and flashy jewelry other young black men wore in the 1970s. He looked good in a felt or leather hat. Smooth.
He worked as a busboy, getting out of Alex W. Spence Junior High and Crozier Technical High School early to report to the now defunct Lucas B&B and other restaurants on Lemmon. After his 2-to-10 shift, there was time to see the girls and share some wine or weed. His music matched his mood; he liked jazz and ballads from Fleetwood Mac and Heart. In the summer, he loved to swim in the blue water at the public pools. After he broke up with a girl, they invariably remained friends. He was easy to know and easy to talk to. His nickname was Dick.
Woodard’s two-year, three-part career as a criminal began at age 17, when he and an older guy broke into an empty building on Ross, just to see if they could do it. They parked their car right in front of the building. He got probation. A year later, having dropped out of Crozier Tech, he impulsively snatched a $50 watch off a rack at a shop in The Quadrangle on Routh Street. He got three years. They let him out after he’d served 13 months at Ferguson Correctional Unit in Midway, 20 miles northwest of Huntsville. The final event in his crime spree occurred a year later, when a friend came by in a sharp ’68 Ford LTD and Woodard, now 19, got in. "He gave me the impression that he owned the car," says Woodard, but it had been borrowed from a relative’s used car lot. And when his friend was tardy returning it, Woodard was swept up in the crime. He got six months, which was reduced to time served, six days.
And that was it. A senator’s son involved in similar scrapes might not have done a day. A good lawyer might have had the charges reduced or dropped. But young men working as busboys or (his next job) in shipping and receiving don’t get good lawyers. Woodard’s minor crimes would haunt him 10 years later. His unwitting joyride in that four-door Ford counted, nonsensically, as a felony. State law allows a prosecutor to bring up prior bad acts; at a trial, Woodard could be portrayed as a jailbird, a habitual offender, and--ugly word--a felon.
"In Texas," says Innocence Project lawyer Blackburn, "you’re never allowed to pay off your debt."
On Tuesday, December 30, 1980, Dallas basked in the afterglow of the Cowboys’ 34-13 win over the Los Angeles Rams two days earlier. Danny White was throwing, Drew Pearson was catching, and Tony Dorsett was running. The city held its breath in anticipation of the next playoff game, with Atlanta, on January 4.
Against this background, the murder of a black girl in South Dallas didn’t make much of a splash.
A motorist spotted Beverly Ann Jones’ nude body as he drove on South Loop 12 over the Trinity River bottoms. She’d been raped and strangled, probably the previous night. A tragedy: Jones was 18 and pretty, and now she lay naked in the harsh, cold sun.
The Dallas police learned that Jones had been dating James Woodard. "We’d been going out about seven or eight months," Woodard says. But the relationship had run its course. "We were still seeing each other, but it had got to the point where we were getting on each other’s nerves." They’d slept together the previous weekend, but the night Jones was murdered, Woodard spent the night with another woman, Ruby Nichols. She and her aunt confirmed this when asked.
Almost immediately, something strange occurred in the investigation. Having identified the dead girl, the police went to her house. And Beverly Jones’ stepfather said that he’d seen her get into a car with James Woodard the night she was killed. Oscar Edwards had actually seen no such thing, as he admitted much, much later. Woodard would have a long time to wonder about the man’s motivation. Did Edwards resent the younger man for his coolness, his friendliness, his clothes, or for being 10 years older than Beverly? He never said.
"I was never around the stepfather enough to know that he disliked me," Woodard says. "I only met him two or three times. He didn’t have much to say. He’d go into his room when I came to visit."
When a police detective informed Woodard of the murder, he watched his face very closely. The detective would later testify that the victim’s erstwhile boyfriend did not act sufficiently shocked at the news of her murder. The police invited their only suspect to come to the station to talk. They locked him up when he got there. This was January. The trial began in May.
Woodard met his attorney--an overloaded public defender--the day before the trial began. We the People were represented in the Beverly Jones murder case by the office of Henry Wade, the Dallas district attorney whose convictions are now being overturned at the fastest rate in the nation. Assistants named Rick Russell and Luther Layman handled the prosecution with the boss’s win-at-all-costs style--even if it meant concealing the truth.
A couple of days before the trial, the police shared important new information with Russell and Layman: the night Beverly Jones was killed, witnesses had seen her get into a car with three men in a 7-Eleven parking lot. Eddie Woodard (no relation), a registered sex offender, disappeared after the murder. About three weeks later, another of the men in the car, Theodore Blaylock, was charged with the sexual assault of a woman he’d threatened to kill. He was in jail during James Woodard’s trial and was eventually convicted of the crime. Blaylock died the next year, in 1982, at the hand of a woman he was attempting to rape.
The prosecutors kept the existence of the three men from the defense until after the trial, when it was too late, violating a crucial ethical standard.
Although no physical evidence tied Woodard to the rape and murder of Beverly Jones--the tire tracks next to her body didn’t match the Goodyears on his car, and there was no evidence that Jones had been in his Buick LeSabre, or that the car had been in the muddy river bottom--the jury found Oscar, the lying father-in-law of the victim, more credible than Ruby, the new girlfriend of the accused. They believed, apparently, the prosecutor’s fiction that Woodard was a habitual criminal. And, of course, the 12 citizens didn’t hear about the men who picked up Beverly Jones in their car at the 7-Eleven the night she was killed.
Woodard was guilty, the jury said. He got life.
"I knew god wasn’t a bondsman, a guard, a judge, or a lawyer," Woodard is saying, having been asked if his religious faith pulled him through. "I see so many guys in trouble go to church. They want something. I only asked his help to keep me mentally strong. He gave me a mind, a body, a sense of right and wrong, and strength."
We’re eating again, at Simply Burgers at S.H. 360 and Trinity Boulevard, in unprepossessing, soulless Euless. Woodard is disappointed that malts are not on the beverage menu. He struggles to find the straw access point in the lid of his soft drink. He says that he didn’t light a cigarette during his long incarceration but now that he’s out, he’s smoking again, the same brand he bought back in 1980. The Kool pack, he observes, was white then. Now it’s green.
Woodard knows I want to know about prison, and I know he doesn’t want to talk about it. "You ever have a nightmare?" he asks rhetorically. "The last thing you want to do is go back. What is the interest? It’s a lot of things that are horrifying. Do people like horror stories?"
Our conversations on life inside have been uncomfortable. My questions are too blunt or too stupid--especially the one about air-conditioning.
Did you think about revenge?
But that jury--
"I can’t even recall one juror’s face."
You were in some fights. What were they about?
"Disagreements. A guy in a bad mood. I didn’t have many fights."
Ever have any interesting cellmates, or one that became a friend?
"Wasn’t any gangs, not until the ’90s or late ’90s. No, it wasn’t any problem for me. I kept to myself."
Do any time in solitary?
"A time or two for various reasons. I never stayed long."
You met with parole boards at least a dozen times. Bet you remember their faces.
"It was different people. They’d say, ’Why did you do it?’ As long as I said I didn’t do it, it showed that I wasn’t rehabilitated."
When 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley asked him why he didn’t admit to the crime as a way to show remorse and get paroled, Woodard said, "I wasn’t guilty. I mean, a man has to stand for something." He wouldn’t lie to get out of prison. He wouldn’t lie.
Following his conviction, Woodard peered through the metal mesh on the windows of a white prison bus, headed south. The convicted murderer was assigned to the toughest maximum-security prison in Texas, our Alcatraz, Ellis One, north of Huntsville. His cell was very close to that perfect expression of human misery, death row.
"I was overwhelmed that I had a life sentence for a crime I didn’t, wouldn’t, would never contemplate committing," Woodard says. "But you’re not going to get any kind of pity. Fear is something you don’t show on entering a prison. Every man looks at you for some sign of fear or weakness.
"My desire to get out kept me kind of detached. I had other matters on my mind. Where was the law library located? I wanted to get some books. Of course I was angry, but if you get in a legal situation, nothing will get you out except legal. After I read in a book how prosecutors think--win at all costs--I never thought it was personal."
He worked in the fields at first, the worst job in the place. Then he got a much better gig, out of the sun and weather, in the laundry, as a washer. He didn’t make friends with the dryer or the folder. The temptation to form alliances is irresistible for most inmates, but Woodard remained aloof and alone. "It’s illogical to think you can meet any challenge, but I used to try to outthink a bully," he says. "Or try to put two of them together." He avoided groups, such as those playing basketball. Any game might erupt in a fight. "There were altercations to relieve their frustrations. I tried not to be the object they relieved them on."
He spent eight years at Ellis One, then moved every two to four years to other prisons in the system: Wynne, Pack, Allred, Robertson, Powledge. There would be no warning--at about midnight, a guard would tell him to put his belongings in a bag. They’d cuff his hands, usually, and he’d take his seat on the white bus and go for a ride to a new home with concertina wire and guards. Everywhere it was strict routines and bland food, an Everest of peanut butter sandwiches, and Jell-O for dessert, when there was dessert. Every day was chopped in little pieces by a flat voice on the intercom: "Twelve o’clock recreation. One hour." He didn’t eat breakfast. He worked in the laundry for the last few years, as a folder of white inmate shirts. This was at Powledge, the prison he considers the best in the system.
"Air-conditioning?" Woodard snorts. "Air what? Come on. We had God’s air-conditioning. But they allowed you to purchase fans. They’ve got a killer fan now called the Whirlwind."
What Woodard did mostly in prison was read--law books and history, rarely fiction, except for John Grisham’s legal thrillers--and write. "Motions and writs when I wasn’t filing grievances against the system," Woodard says. "Hundreds of them? Without a doubt. I had the proverbial chip on my shoulder. I gave ’em a hard time."
In a hand that looked like it came from a penmanship text, Woodard channeled Mrs. Graham, his fourth-grade teacher:
March 31, 1985
Dear Mr. Wade,
As you may recall, I’ve written to you several times in the past concerning my conviction. Each time one of your assistants would respond by saying "a jury of your peers found you guilty so no further investigation of your case is warranted." Be that as it may, but I am not the person responsible for the crime I was convicted of. I have a life sentence for a crime I had no part of in the slightest way. I’m probably the only prisoner in Texas who drove himself voluntarily to jail. " I was under the impression that murders are investigated very thoroughly but obviously I was wrong. I was even denied a lie detector test! " I really would like to know one thing: if you found out for yourself that I was innocent, would you let me go?
James Woodard #323771
He wrote a lot of letters like that. He was ignored.
Woodard had very few visitors over the years. Neither his mother nor his sister drove, so they had to take a bus. Maybe three or four times they saw their only brother, their only son. His mother Lorena passed on December 29, 1998. James Woodard, of course, was not allowed to attend her funeral.
And the hours and days and years in prison dripped like calcium carbonate off the roof of a cavern, an imponderably slow and steady process that turns men’s lives into icicles of stone.
If television is candy to prisoners, the O.J. Simpson case was crack cocaine. But while others merely watched the 1995 double murder trial for its considerable entertainment value, Woodard studied it. He came away with questions: who was this defense attorney, Barry Scheck, whose bad suits and bad hair and New York accent made him so different from the other preeners in the courtroom? He’s the DNA expert? What is that? Scheck co-founded the Innocence Project in 1992? What did they do? Could they help him?
Woodard sent a new series of letters to the world, and soon his pleas had the increased gravity that only mechanical type can bring. His dear sister, Youlanda, had given him a vintage Smith Corona, complete with ribbons and a jar of correction fluid.
An excruciatingly slow process had begun. The heroes of the exoneration of James Woodard would be Jeff Blackburn and Clay Graham of the Innocence Project of Texas, and Texas Wesleyan law student Alexis Hoff, who read Woodard’s thick file in 2001 and said, "This just doesn’t add up." (The Texas Innocence Project affiliates with various law schools, for the free labor and idealism.) Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins had the courage to cooperate with the Innocence Project people, not to stonewall as bureaucrats do. The villains in the drama succumbed to the worst within themselves and their system, because the wrongful imprisonment of James Woodard was deliberate and not a mistake.
There are questions to be asked: would justice be better served if the district attorney were appointed and not elected? How many other times did the office of Henry Wade get convictions by forgetting to share evidence with the defense? Why are the penalties for such misconduct so elusive and lacking teeth? All these stories deserve some daylight, but not here. This is the story of James Woodard.
"I can see why guys go right back to prison," Woodard is saying. He’s in his beige, bare apartment, stranded in Euless without a car, a man on an island without a boat. "Prison prepares you for the inside but not the outside." For example: deciding today what to do tomorrow is difficult for him. Ask him to have lunch on Tuesday and he hesitates--better call him on Tuesday. Prison planned for him for so long that now he can’t plan. And he would not allow himself to think about the rest of his life until the very moment he was freed.
"The hardest part has been renting an apartment," Woodard says. "No matter what, your record is gonna pop up, so you have to explain. Most apartments are run by management companies and they just have a policy: no felons. That’s why it took me three weeks to find a place."
Clay Graham, selfless man, lent Woodard his apartment during the search, and drove with him to explain exoneration to the rental agents. Neither man says it, but it seems plain that Woodard rented this place in the Mid Cities only after Dallas wouldn’t take him.
Money is a problem; Woodard wouldn’t survive without help from the Innocence Project of Texas. Although those who have had convictions overturned can apply to the federal or state government for monetary compensation (based on time served), it’s a difficult process, and no one is guaranteed they will be granted payment. These settlements are all taxed at a high percentage (35 to 40 percent on average, Graham says). Woodard has retained counsel and is considering filing a civil rights lawsuit in federal court.
But Woodard is certain of one thing: he wants to be near his wonderful sister, Youlanda. Youlanda, who never doubted his innocence, who sent him spending money every month for all those years. "I thank the Lord that this day has come," says Youlanda, the proud mother of Brandyln and Everett. "I wish my mother was alive to see it." Youlanda worked in medical collections until recently, when her health became a problem. Her older brother James wants to help and support her the way she did him. She’s the only reason he’s in Dallas.
Otherwise, Woodard would be in Lubbock, doing something or other at the headquarters of the Innocence Project of Texas. Perhaps someday, he’ll be the public face of Innocence, its spokesman. "I’ve got a chance to start over," Woodard says. "People have been so nice to me. I’ve been so lucky." His voice is strong.
Curt Sampson’s lucky 13th book is Golf Dads: Father’s, Sons, and the Greatest Game
(Houghton Mifflin, 2008).