Saturday, October 27, 2012

R.I.P., James Woodard: Why the Dallas DA recommended his pardon

Exoneree James Woodard, who spent 27 years in prison after being falsely convicted of murdering his girlfriend, will be laid to rest today in Dallas. James was wrongly convicted during the Carter Administration and was one of the Dallas exonerees who was denied DNA testing by former Dallas District Attorney Bill Hill only to be proven innocent when the testing was famously allowed under his successor, Craig Watkins  Cases like James' were among those that spurred the Legislature in 2011 to revamp the post-conviction DNA testing statute to limit prosecutors' grounds for objection. His story was featured on 60 Minutes soon after his release; see also a lengthy feature from D Magazine. He joined the board of my employers at the Innocence Project of Texas and for a while was among the most outspoken of Texas' DNA exonerees.

I met James for the first time when he came to Austin to testify on behalf of eyewitness identification legislation in 2009. Of the dozen or so exonerated men who came into town for a lobby day in February of that year, James and I were paired to walk around the capitol making visits advocating the eyewitness ID bill and other reform legislation. He was a good spokesman and seemingly a natural leader among Texas exonerees, but he had already begun to exhibit hints of hidden problems dogging him. He suffered a mild-but-scary seizure at the end of a long day while speaking to a staffer from state Sen. Dan Patrick's office in which he stopped talking, forgot where he was and walked out of the room almost in mid-sentence. (Medication to treat the condition had been left in his hotel room.)

As James Woodard's friends and loved ones remember him today, I thought it appropriate to post the text of a letter dated May 22, 2009 to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. It was drafted by then-Conviction Integrity Unit Chief Mike Ware for Dallas DA Craig Watkins to sign, urging Governor Rick Perry to pardon James on "actual innocence" grounds, which he soon did. The letter declared James Woodard was falsely convicted because "the State had withheld highly relevant, exculpatory evidence at the time of the trial and thereby presented a completely misleading and distorted picture of the facts to the jury." Wrote Ware, in an email passing along the letter::
James's story is fascinating.  I believe the attached letter is a fair, accurate, and concise synopsis of his story. It is the "official version" if you will.

Of course, James had a life both before his conviction and after his exoneration, but his "story" as reflected in the attached letter is the reason James's life stood for something positive and profound.  Most lives don't.  James's did.  
 Here's a link to the letter, which is republished in full below the jump. Rest in peace, James.
Dear Board Members:

The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office respectfully requests that you recommend a pardon based on actual innocence for James Lee Woodard. On May 22, 1981, a jury convicted Mr. Woodard of murder. Mr. Woodard is currently out of prison on a personal recognizance bond granted by the convicting court pursuant to article 17.48 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

Summary of the Case

On December 31, 1980, the body of Beverly Ann Jones was discovered in the Trinity River bottoms in Dallas County. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled. A semen sample was collected from her body. DNA testing completed in December 2007 and a subsequent post-conviction investigation, have now established that Woodard did not commit the offense for which he was convicted. The judge of the convicting court has examined the DNA test results pursuant to Chapter 64, Tex. Code Crim. Proc. and found that had those results been available during the trial of the offense, it is reasonably probable that the person would not have been convicted. Accordingly, this office asks that executive clemency, in the form of a pardon based on actual innocence, be granted to James Woodard in this case.

Facts of the Offense

The deceased's partially nude body was discovered on December 31, 1980 in the Trinity River bottoms, a relatively rural area within the City of Dallas and in Dallas County. The pathologist who performed the autopsy determined that the deceased had been strangled to death approximately two days before the body was found.

A rape exam performed by the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences revealed the presence of sperm heads on a vaginal smear taken from the decedent. However, because DNA technology as it is currently applied to forensic sciences did not exist at the time of the original investigation, no DNA testing was attempted on the vaginal smear, although evidence of the sexual assault was offered into evidence by the State at Woodard's trial.

James Woodard, described as the deceased's boyfriend, was contacted by police on January 1, 1981, the day after the deceased's body was discovered. Upon request by the police, Woodard drove himself to the police station and gave a voluntary statement in which he denied any involvement in the murder or sexual assault. He described the time and place that he had last seen the deceased alive and provided names and contact information for witnesses who could confirm his account of where he was and what he was doing at the alleged time of the offense. Nevertheless, he was arrested on the spot. Although his car was thoroughly searched by police at the time of his arrest, and then impounded, no evidence connecting the car to the crime scene or in any way tending to connect Woodard to the offense itself was recovered. In fact, no physical evidence connecting or purporting to connect Woodard to the offense was ever recovered. Woodard remained incarcerated from the time of his arrest, January 1, 1981 until he was released by the court of conviction on a personal bond over twenty-eight years later.

The evidence presented against Woodard at his trial was entirely circumstantial and could be fairly characterized as extremely suspect and weak. A neighbor testified that she saw the defendant struggling with the deceased at approximately 3:00 a.m. on December 29, 1980 in her apartment parking lot. The deceased's step-father testified that Woodard came to his apartment looking for the deceased at approximately 3:00 a.m. on December 29, 1980. Each of these witnesses was interviewed as part of the post-conviction investigation and neither witness stands by their trial testimony. The deceased's step-father, in fact, states that it was not Woodard that he saw at 3:00 a.m. and that he believes Woodard to be innocent. The neighbor acknowledges a history of prescribed medications and denies any memory of the purported incident or her previous testimony.

At trial, Woodard testified on his own behalf and denied any knowledge of or participation in the murder or sexual assault.

Facts Surrounding Post-Conviction DNA Testing

After the post-conviction DNA statute was passed in 2001, Woodard filed a motion to have the DNA from the vaginal smear that was collected from the deceased tested in order to prove his innocence. Woodard had consistently maintained his innocence since his arrest and incarceration in 1981. His effort to obtain a test was turned down initially on February 17, 2004 after the District Attorney's office had represented to the court of conviction that the vaginal smear no longer existed and that there was no longer any relevant biological evidence on which to conduct a DNA test. The District Attorney's office also argued that "Although the medical examiner testified that the murderer had sexual intercourse with the victim at the time of her death, the victim's sexual history is unknown" (State's Motion to Deny Woodard's Request for Post-Conviction DNA Testing" filed Feb. 2, 2004).

In July 2007, the newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit in the Dallas County District Attorney's office began a collaborative review with the Innocence Project of Texas of all the defendants whose requests for DNA testing had been denied, since the enactment of the post-conviction DNA testing statute in 2001. Woodard's name was on the list and a review of the case revealed, among other things, that after Woodard's DNA motion was denied by the trial court, the vaginal smear had, in fact, been located and preserved in a manner that made it suitable for testing.

Upon this discovery, the smear was transported to Orchid Cellmark Laboratory for a DNA test pursuant to an agreement between the District Attorney's office and the Innocence Project of Texas. The test results, received in December 2007, reported one unknown male donor on the sperm fraction of the vaginal smear and excluded Woodard as a donor.

After the DNA test came back excluding Woodard, at the joint request of the Dallas County District Attorney's office and the Innocence Project of Texas, Sparks Veasey, a licensed physician, a board certified anatomical, clinical, and forensic pathologist, a licensed attorney, and an assistant district attorney for Brazoria County conducted a forensic review of the relevant evidence from the original investigation in light of the DNA findings excluding Woodard. A copy of his affidavit describing his findings, opinions, and conclusions and the basis of his findings, opinions, and conclusions is attached as Exhibit B. Upon finishing his forensic review of the evidence, Veasey's opinion was that "the sexual assault and murder occurred contemporaneously or in close temporal relationship." He also stated that in his opinion "the sexual assailant and the person who caused the death of [the decedent] are likely the same person and that James Woodard, in reasonable medical probability, is not that person." He concluded that the evidence "strongly suggests" Woodard's innocence.

Further investigation revealed that the State had withheld highly relevant, exculpatory evidence at the time of the trial and thereby presented a completely misleading and distorted picture of the facts to the jury.

Specifically, at the hearing in the Motion for New Trial held on July 17, 1981, three men conceded that they had been partying with the deceased in the late night/early morning hours during the time or immediately proceeding the time the medical examiner had testified as the estimated time of death. None of the men knew James Woodard and none of them ever saw him that night/early morning. One of the three, Eddie Woodard (who did not know and who is no relation to James Woodard), testified at the hearing on the Motion for New Trial that he had known the deceased for several years and that the last time he saw her that night, she was driving off with the other two men, Theodore Blaylock, and Edward Mosley. Once again, that would have been during the time or immediately prior to the time of the medical examiner's estimated time of death. The hearing on the Motion for New Trial established that Eddie Woodard had communicated this information to the District Attorney's office prior to James Woodard's trial. This relevant and exculpatory information, however, was not disclosed to the defense prior to trial. Eddie Woodard is currently a sex offender and absconder and has not been located to re-interview.

Theodore Blaylock, one of the two men who drove off with the deceased at a time roughly corresponding to the M.E.'s estimated time of death went on to commit a violent, sexual assault against another woman about a month after the murder of Beverly Jones. (See attached police report, Exhibit C). He was charged and incarcerated for that offense at the time of James Woodard's trial and at the time of James Woodard's hearing on his Motion for New Trial. The post-conviction investigation has revealed that after James Woodard's trial, and after the hearing on his Motion for New Trial, Blaylock pled guilty to the subsequent sexual assault and received a short sentence. Shortly after he was released, Blaylock was shot and killed by yet another woman whom he was attempting to sexual assault (see attached police report, Exhibit D). The woman was not charged.

The third man, Edward Mosley, has been re-interviewed several times, initially while in prison. Although his version of the facts has not remained totally consistent, he continues to acknowledge that he and Blaylock were with the deceased roughly during the time period the M.E. testified as the time of death and that he suspects Blaylock to be responsible for her death.

Regardless, this information was unquestionably relevant and completely consistent with Woodard's version of the facts and testimony at trial. It is completely consistent with Woodard's contention that he was nowhere around the deceased at the time the M.E. testified as to the time of death. The information should have been further investigated by the State and at the very least disclosed to Woodard's trial attorney prior to trial.

The original detective has been re-interviewed and claims to have had no knowledge of these three men, or their acknowledged involvement with the deceased during the relevant time period. She also acknowledges the relevancy of the evidence in light of the State's theory of the case and Woodard's defense.

The case against James Woodard is unsound. In light of the newly developed DNA evidence as well as the entire post-conviction investigation, I do not believe any reasonable fact finder would convict Woodard of the murder of Beverly Jones. Therefore, I respectfully request that executive clemency, in the form of a pardon, on the ground of innocence, be granted to James Lee Woodard for the murder of Beverly Jones

The above facts have persuaded this office to request that a pardon based on innocence be granted to James Lee Woodard in cause number F81-04933.
Craig Watkins
Dallas County District Attorney
Dallas, TX


Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, while I never got a chance to meet Mr. Woodard in person, I felt his pain in deed due to sharing a similar injustice that basically ties victims of the system together whether we like it or not. Now, I would like to send up a prayer for a fellow human as we collectively say farewell.

R.I.P. sir, we'll take it from here. We shall call for permanent reservations of tables for spirits' to rest at all future gatherings of the powers to be regarding doing the right thing. We will not forget you or allow them to even consider it.

Re: the seeking of the Full Pardon - based on innocence application. The Clemency Section - 'Rules' for Applicants' require that all three original trial officials be contacted & provide a unanimous decision. Are you aware if the remaining two received copies and returned Agreement letters / motions to Mr. Woodard? As it stands we don’t know if the Sheriff & Trial Judge got on board or ignored. Thanks.

Note: Asking due to wishing that the entire process be preserved from arrest and beyond the grave - (including any & all photos, letters', motions, replies, applications, decisions & names of those having any ties to the case prior, during & after). Reforming a broken / fixed judicial system & educating the public at large about the consequences must include not being allowed to forget its victims' and those shown conspiring to convict & cover up at all cost.

ckikerintulia said...

I'm glad Mr. Woodward lived to see his exoneration.

Anonymous said...

"the State had withheld highly relevant, exculpatory evidence at the time of the trial and thereby presented a completely misleading and distorted picture of the facts to the jury."

A sarcastic "Thank-you" to Dallas County DA Craig Watkins for NOT pursuing criminal charges against the prosecutors (Rick Russell, Luther Layman) who put James Woodard in prison for 27 years (see By all means, take all the credit for half a job.

A sincere "Thank-you" to J.W. for his work.

Anonymous said...

Sarcasm is the last refuge of the fool. Dostoyevsky