Tuesday, May 6, 2008
This Is A Man: The Heroic Intransigence of James L. Woodard
"I don't know your `philosophy' of life, but I assume you wouldn't take a man's freedom just because you can. That's why I keep sending these letters to you.... I've been locked up 3 1/2 years now and it's been really `frustrating,' but I won't allow anything to prevent me from obtaining what God gave me at birth and what is rightfully mine, my freedom."
From a letter written by James Lee Woodard on June 24, 1984 to Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade
James Woodard was unduly optimistic in his assessment of what passed for Henry Wade's character. As it happened, Wade was precisely the kind of person who would take a man's freedom from him simply because he could. He did so with great frequency, remarkable efficiency, and the chilling composure of a sociopath. In this respect Wade could be considered a prototype of the modern prosecuting attorney.
"I really would like to know one thing," wrote Woodard in a March 31, 1985 letter to Wade, "if you found out for yourself that I was innocent, would you let me go?"
Wade, as we will shortly see, almost certainly knew that Woodard was innocent. Not that he was unduly troubled by that knowledge, of course.
That letter, like all the others Woodard wrote, was re-directed to one of Wade's assistants. Wade never read letters from those he had sent to prison. Presumably, this is because of the volume of correspondence involved. But in the case of Woodard -- and, as we're now learning, a very large number of the other men Wade convicted -- it's likely that the much-heralded DA was trying to protect a bad conscience.
The Book of Proverbs instructs us that "The wicked flee where no man pursueth, but the righteous are as bold as a lion."
Clothed in the supposed majesty of his office, supposedly the soul of blustery rectitude and civic virtue Henry Wade was a cringing, terrified rodent when the truth about his "achievements" threatened to overtake him.
Consigned to a dismal prison cell, facing the prospect of dying behind bars surrounded by those who insisted on his guilt, James Woodard displayed leonine strength of character and inexhaustible tenacity.
Woodard was convicted in 1980 of murdering his girlfriend, Beverly Ann Jones. The case turned on the testimony of an eyewitness who claimed to have seen Woodward near the scene of the murder. That witness claimed to have identified Woodward from several hundred yards away at 3:30 a.m.
Woodward maintained that he had been at a party in Arlington in the company of numerous eyewitnesses at the time of the murder. The Dallas DA's office, headed by former FBI agent Henry Wade, was able to confirm Woodward's alibi. And it was also aware of the fact that three other men had been seen with Miss Jones that night, including two who would later be convicted of sexual assault.
Wade and his office, in their zeal to close the case, refused to provide that exculpatory evidence to the defense, as they were legally and ethically required to do. The case against Woodward was thinner than a bulimic heroin addict; it relied on a dubious eyewitness ID and a pile of circumstantial evidence. Wade and his henchmen did what they could to flesh out that case with layers of insinuation and theatrical outrage, and this proved to be sufficient. In 1981, Woodward was found guilty and sent to prison, apparently for life.
Over the next 27 years, Woodard was up for parole on at least 12 occasions. His conduct in prison was exemplary, and apart from the conviction there was no indication that he would pose a threat to anyone if he were freed. However, at each hearing the parole board insisted that Woodard allocute to the crime, often saying that his refusal to acknowledge his guilt was the only thing standing between him and freedom.
And each time, Woodard refused to concede his guilt.
"They always told me, as long as you deny your guilt it's saying something about you -- you know, you are not willing to own up to your deed," Woodard noted in a remarkable interview broadcast on CBS's 60 Minutes program. And each time, he recalled in a gentle, resonant drawl, the parole board's reaction was, "We gonna deny you."
Like any human being blessed with even a particle of self-awareness, Woodard craved his freedom. But unlike the vast majority of people, he understood that he wouldn't truly be free if, in order to escape his physical imprisonment, he permitted the State to brand him indelibly as a criminal for an offense he didn't commit.
Woodard's physical freedom had been stolen from him. He refused to become an accomplice in that crime by ratifying the State's assault on his integrity. This is why, in a very real sense, Woodard -- even when he was confined to his prison cell -- was freer than many of us who make soul-killing compromises with our Enemy, the State under much less onerous circumstances.
"I wasn't guilty," Woodard explained, his voice flavored with a hint of incredulity when asked why he wouldn't submit to the parole board's demands. "A man has to stand for something."
At some point following Woodard's conviction, a forensic pathologist determined that Miss Jones had been raped the night she was murdered; he collected DNA evidence that could be used either to exonerate Woodard, or confirm his guilt.
To Woodard's considerable good fortune, Dallas authorities maintain an inventory of physical evidence from cases running back several decades. He was blessed by two other remarkable developments: The election last year of reformist Dallas County DA Craig Watkins, and the advent of the Innocence Project, a non-profit, volunteer group that investigates cases that appear to be wrongful convictions.
Watkins has provoked considerable controversy -- and inspired no small amount of gratitude in some quarters -- by energetically reviewing old convictions. To that end he has effectively deputized the Innocence Project of Texas (IPT), providing them with access to case files and backing its investigative efforts with subpoenas. (Case reviews are conducted by law students who receive neither monetary compensation nor class credit for their efforts.) So far, Watkins and the IPT have exonerated 17 innocent men who had been imprisoned by the Dallas DA's office.
Last year, law student Alexis Hoff of the IPT -- a young lady who had not been born when 28-year-old James Woodard went to prison in 1981 -- began to review Woodard's conviction. In November the prisoner -- who had never ceased to proclaim his innocence -- submitted a DNA sample, which didn't match the one obtained from the body of Miss Jones.
Last week, Woodard was released from prison after serving 27 years for a crime he didn't commit. He was imprisoned longer than any of the other convicts whose innocence has been established by DNA testing.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Woodard, you're not getting justice today," explained Texas District Judge Mark Stoltz as he commuted the prison sentence. "You're just getting the end of injustice."
The injustice visited on Woodard was entirely avoidable. Like many prosecutors who came in his wake (Craig Watkins is a very welcome anomaly), Wade's credo appeared to be: "Convict in haste, and exonerate at leisure -- if at all."
A couple of years after Wade hustled Woodard into prison, he pulled the same stunt on Lenell Geter, a transit worker who was convicted of the August 1982 armed robbery of a KFC restaurant and sentenced to life in prison.
About a year and a half later, spurred by adverse publicity generated by an earlier 60 Minutes investigation into the crime and a penetrating series published by the Dallas Times Herald, and conscious that his career was winding down, Wade authorized his office to reopen the case. With minimal effort the investigators turned up a wealth of exculpatory evidence, much of it coming from numerous witnesses who confirmed that Geter had been at work at the time of the robbery. Many of them hadn't even been interviewed. The second investigation also quickly turned up a different suspect, Curtis Mason, who was eventually convicted of the KFC robbery and several other violent crimes.
Despite the overwhelming evidence collected and presented by his own investigators, Wade initially balked at freeing Geter. He eventually relented, and Geter was released in 1984. (Geter, whose story was adapted into a made-for-television movie, now works as a motivational speaker.)
Woodard had to wait twenty-four more years. Twenty-eight years of age at the time of his wrongful imprisonment, he is now 55; the prime of his life was stolen from him because of a vain, corrupt, power-intoxicated, glory-mongering prosecutor -- and, of course, because of the culpable indifference (at best) of the citizens tapped to serve as his jury.
And it shouldn't be forgotten that Woodard made the choice to prolong his own incarceration rather than concede unearned guilt for a crime he didn't commit. In doing so he exercised the only freedom left to him: The freedom to protect his personal integrity. When he was asked about his priorities last year by the Innocence Project, Woodard didn't say that his most cherished goal was to be freed from prison, but rather "To clear my name."
Craig Watkins says he is "haunted" by the possibility that innocent men have been sent to the execution chamber by the Dallas County DA's office; I'd say that this is something akin to a statistical certainty.
One Little Victory: Flanked by Jeff Blackburn and Michelle Moore of the Innocence Project Texas, James Woodard celebrates his freedom.
The U.S. Government and its various subsidiaries, as author Don Bacon recently pointed out, has in its custody 25 percent of the world's total prison population. The Prison-Industrial Complex is a huge and growing subsidized bonanza for government-funded contractors, as well as a surprising number of nominally private companies (from Microsoft to Toys 'R' Us) who profit from extremely low-cost prison labor.
That's right: The U.S., with a prison population that exceeds that of Communist China by 500,000, has its own "reform through labor" system that is the functional equivalent of China's much- and properly-condemned Laogai camps.
Such are the times in which we live that we should take satisfaction in relatively small victories. Of course, to James Woodard there was nothing small or insignificant in the victory he achieved -- with the indispensable help of the Innocence Project -- over the Prison-Industrial Complex. A few more such individual victories could coalesce into a legitimate, and badly overdue, counter-offensive.
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Dum spiro, pugno!