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.
"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).