This month, hundreds of law students, researchers, professors, attorneys and exonerees will gather to discuss innocence work, pending legislation, and how justice for thousands is still being delayed or denied. It is a subject Texas is more than familiar with.
The Innocence Network Conference in Charlotte, N.C., will feature more than 100 exonerees from across the country. But James Lee Woodard won’t be among them.
He was not just the “17th Dallas man exonerated by DNA evidence,” he was also my longtime fiancé. As the first nonlawyer ever appointed to the board of directors for the Innocence Project of Texas, I was honored to be in the courtroom, along with 60 Minutes, when we helped James win his freedom on April 29, 2008. He served 27 years after being wrongfully convicted for the murder of his girlfriend.
This month, James would have celebrated five years of freedom. But that won’t happen now. You see, my beloved tragically died of a seizure in the Dallas County Jail on Oct. 15. Colleagues, friends and a couple of family members keep trying to make me feel ashamed of loving James. That will never be the case. I promised James, in life, and in death, that I would tell our story.
James worked hard because he knew 75 percent of the more than 300 proven wrongful convictions in the U.S. were due to faulty witness identification. In 2011, James was instrumental in helping to change the law in Texas. Now law enforcement agencies must employ a technique known as “double-blind” sequential forms of live and photo lineups.
That’s a fancy way of saying witnesses, investigators or anyone conducting lineups shall not have a clue as to who the real suspects are. This prevents leading the witnesses or having photo lineups designed to make one person stand out more than another.
In late 2010, James also persuaded the Internal Revenue Service to not assign federal taxes to compensation packages due to Texas exonerees. James had a seizure in front of the chief counsel for the IRS and was rushed to George Washington University Hospital.
As the emergency room doctor asked me to discuss James’ pre-existing conditions and advise him on treatment, I thought about the months, and now, the years, that my phone never stopped ringing about a life I knew from start to end, from freedom to incarceration, from seizures to car crashes, diabetes to dysfunctional issues. Truly, it was a labor of love. In return, James Woodard took care of me, more than the world was ever aware. We had something of value I will not walk away from, as if we never existed.
After my front-row life with James, post-exoneration, I suspect there are more innocents waiting to walk free into a life that has the potential to overwhelm.
In fact, we were happiest the first 18 months together, penniless and eating Spam and eggs for dinner. Multiple times, James told me he didn’t care about the $4 million compensation package he was entitled to. Above all, James cherished his freedom.
As for me, I would give back every penny to have one more day with James, attend one more innocence conference with him, just to see him smile once more. I loved James Woodard, I love him still.
No doubt, he will be missed at this year’s innocence conference – and for the rest of my life.
Joyce King of Frisco is the author of several books, including “Hate Crime: The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas.” She is currently working on a new book, “James Interrupted: The $4 Million Dollar Man.”. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org