LONGEST-SERVING WRONGFULLY CONVICTED U.S. INMATE SET FREE WITH THE HELP OF DNA LASTED 27 YEARS IN JAIL BECAUSE HE HAD HOPE, HE TELLS "60 MINUTES" IN HIS FIRST INTERVIEW
James Woodard's Freedom is the Result of a Project Started by the Dallas County D.A.
On each of the nearly 10,000 days he spent in jail, James Woodard held out hope that someone would believe he was innocent. Some people finally did believe him, but it was 27 years later and they were from an unlikely place: the office of the Dallas County District Attorney, the same entity that railroaded him for the 1980 murder of his girlfriend. Woodard was freed this past Tuesday and is the longest-serving wrongfully convicted inmate to be released with the help of DNA in U.S. history. He gives his first interview ever to Scott Pelley on 60 MINUTES Sunday, May 4 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
Woodard says hope helped him survive. "You can only go one day at a time ever....I just did the best I could...every day I have hope, 'Well, maybe today will be a better day.' [Hope is] all a man has," he tells Pelley. Hope was all Woodard had until a new district attorney took over in Dallas County.
Craig Watkins believed that some of the people behind bars who said they were innocent might be telling the truth. The new district attorney tells Pelley, "We have a responsibility to go back and right the wrongs of the past and free the innocent." In a revolutionary move spearheaded by Watkins, the district attorney's office has teamed up with lawyers and law students from the Innocence Project of Texas to review 400 cases that had previously been denied post-conviction DNA testing under his predecessors. The goal is to determine if any more innocent men are being wrongfully incarcerated in Texas prisons. They were happy to help Watkins' effort, believing they would find some due to a reputation Dallas had picked up decades ago. "Dallas got a reputation as the hardest, roughest county in the state," says Jeff Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas. "This was the one county that you did not want to get accused of a crime in, because in this county [if you got charged with a crime] you were likely going to go to prison."
Back then, the prosecutor's office was run by the legendary Henry Wade, who, says Michelle Moore of the Innocence Project, had deputies who sometimes ignored the rules. "We have found, in some of those cases, that there was evidence that was not given over to the defense, so the defense could not adequately prepare," she says. That's exactly what happened to Woodard.
The Innocence Project found evidence that a man seen with the woman on the night of her murder had been charged in another sexual assault -- evidence that the prosecution never gave to Woodard's defense lawyer. A DNA sample proved he did not rape the victim who was ultimately murdered, providing one piece of the puzzle that helped set him free after 27 years. But Woodard could have gotten out of jail on parole several times, he says. "[The Parole Board] always told me, as long as you deny your guilt, its saying something about you...you are not willing to own up to your deed and we're going to deny you," he tells Pelley. When Pelley asks why he didn't lie to them just to get out of prison, Woodard replies, "I wasn't guilty. I mean a man has to stand for something." Click here for an excerpt.
The judge at the hearing in which Woodard was formally released said to Woodard, apologetically, that he was not getting justice, rather he was seeing "the end of injustice." It was a satisfying moment for which Woodard waited 27 years. "It was well worth the wait, I mean, just...to hear someone admit that they were wrong, they did me wrong," he tells Pelley.