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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.
By Curt Sampson |

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.