Seventeen Dallas County men have been freed from prison following DNA tests that have cleared their names. And till today, those cases have been fairly cut and dry. But Jeff Blackburn, senior counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, wants to make one thing perfectly clear concerning the case of James Lee Woodard: "This not like any other DNA case" in Dallas County history.
Because tomorrow, after serving 27 years in prison for the New Year's Eve 1980 murder of a a woman near the Trinity River, Woodard is expected to become the 18th Dallas County man freed following DNA testing. But the DNA testing revealed only that Woodard wasn't guilty of sexually assaulting the woman. It did not clear him of the murder -- the crime for which he was convicted. Which is what makes this case extraordinary, says the Amarillo-based attorney.
"Most government entities would have said, 'So what? It's interesting the DNA partially cleared him, but that's not what he was convicted of,'" Blackburn tells Unfair Park. "And they would have taken a hyperlegal view of this and used it as an excuse not to investigate further. But Dallas allows one question to open the door for more. This is a search for truth, not a search for ways to justify the misdeeds of your predecessors."
The DNA test results came back in December 2007, and Innocence Project of Texas executive director Natalie Roetzel tells Unfair Park that her organization and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office have spent the last four months proving that Woodard did not commit either crime. Eventually, forensic pathologist Sparks Veasey determined that the man who committed the rape also committed the murder. Which meant Woodard, who had been convicted thanks to the testimony of one eyewitness and circumstantial evidence, was innocent. (Blackburn says the eyewitness claimed to have been able to ID Woodard from several hundred yards away at 3:30 in the morning.)
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Of course, that wasn't enough to clear Woodard -- so the Dallas County District Attorney's Office's Conviction Integrity Division, headed by Mike Ware, and the Innocence Project of Texas have spent several months re-tracing the 1980 investigation. Investigators and attorneys with both organizations "went into the field to interview witnesses to piece together what the story was, and through the investigation everyone is satisfied with the results," Roetzel says. She says investigators uncovered that Woodard was at a party in Arlington, "with his girlfriend and many other people." It's what Woodard maintained from the beginning.
She also says Woodard had maintained his innocence from the moment he was arrested, writing letters to investigators and police officers in 1980 begging them to investigate further. Of course, his pleas were dismissed.
"This case was a lot harder" than the earlier DNA exonerations, Blackburn says. "This is not a one-sided. This required extremely diligent efforts by experienced lawyers with government power. Most DNA cases fit a simple pattern: It's a one-on-one crime, the DNA exonerates, end of story. But we will see more and more cases like this in the future, and I need to stress that only the Dallas County D.A.'s office would have done this kind of work anywhere in the state -- only this D.A.'s office. That's gotta be totally understood. This is not like any other exoneration in Dallas County or Texas history. All the DNA did was open a window into what happened. Somebody had to go through the window. What's going in Dallas is extraordinary. This is an example of how you have to take it to the next level, through real collaboration and real investigation, which only the government can do and we're proud to be part of."
Woodard will be in the Frank Crowley Courts Building, in the 265th District Court room, tomorrow at 9 a.m. After that, his attorneys will hold a press conference. After that, James Lee Woodard will be a free man. --Robert Wilonsky