AP | A Dallas man who spent more than 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit was freed Tuesday, after being incarcerated longer than any other wrongfully convicted U.S. inmate cleared by DNA testing.
James Lee Woodard stepped out of the courtroom and raised his arms to a throng of photographers. Supporters and other people gathered outside the court erupted in applause.
“No words can express what a tragic story yours is,” state District Judge Mark Stoltz told Woodard at a brief hearing before his release.
Woodard, cleared of the 1980 murder of his girlfriend, became the 18th person in Dallas County to have his conviction cast aside. That’s a figure unmatched by any county nationally, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions.
“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.”
Overall, 31 people have been formally exonerated through DNA testing in Texas, also a national high. That does not include Woodard and at least three others whose exonerations will not become official until Gov. Rick Perry grants pardons or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals formally accepts the ruling of lower courts that have already recommended exoneration.
Woodard was sentenced to life in prison in July 1981 for the murder of a 21-year-old Dallas woman found raped 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 in an affidavit. As for the other, “we don’t believe her testimony was accurate,” Roetzel said.
Like nearly all the exonorees, Woodard 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.
“On the first day he was arrested, he told the world he was innocent … and nobody listened,” Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, said during Tuesday’s hearing.
He even stopped attending his parole hearings because gaining his release would have meant confessing to a crime he didn’t do.
“It says a lot about your character that you were more interested in the truth than your freedom,” the judge told Woodard after making his ruling.
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 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.
“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.”