April 29, 2008
By Jennifer Emily-The Dallas Morning News Dallas, TX
Illegally withheld evidence probably caused a man who will be exonerated today to spend more time behind bars than anyone in the country cleared by DNA, the Dallas County district attorney's office and the Innocence Project of Texas said Monday.
James Lee Woodard is expected to be released today by state District Judge Mark Stoltz and become the 17th man exonerated by DNA in Dallas County, which has more DNA exonerations than any other county in the nation.
Mr. Woodard, 55, was sentenced to life in prison in 1981 for the strangulation and rape of his 21-year-old girlfriend, Beverly Ann Jones.
But information that Ms. Jones was with three men – including two later convicted of unrelated sexual assaults – around the time of her death was not disclosed to the defense nor was it thoroughly investigated, said prosecutor Mike Ware, who oversees the Dallas County district attorney's office conviction integrity unit.
Evidence that could benefit a defendant is required by law to be turned over to a defendant, though there is no criminal punishment for not doing so.
Mr. Ware said Mr. Woodard received a "fundamentally unfair" trial. He said he believes the evidence is something that prosecutors at the time should have investigated, "or at least turn it over so the defense could investigate."
Before the district attorney's office agreed that the DNA that exonerated Mr. Woodard of the rape also exonerated him of the murder – in itself an unusual step – a forensic pathologist examined the file and concluded that Ms. Jones was killed about the same time she was raped.
Her body was found New Year's Eve 1980 near the Trinity River in a wooded area near South Loop 12. The night Ms. Jones was killed, she was with Theodore Blaylock, who was convicted of an aggravated rape committed three weeks after Ms. Jones' death, according to Mr. Ware and testimony from a 1981 post-conviction hearing.
Mr. Blaylock testified at the hearing that he was drinking with Ms. Jones, Edward Mosley and Eddie Woodard, who is not related to James Lee Woodard, one morning in late December 1980.
Mr. Blaylock said he and Mr. Mosley went with Ms. Jones to a South Dallas convenience store where Ms. Jones left and got in another car with three other men. Mr. Blaylock could not provide descriptions.
In 1982, Mr. Blaylock was shot and killed when he tried to rape another woman in her car. She pulled a gun from under the seat and shot him several times, Mr. Ware said.
Eddie Woodard is now a registered sex offender involved in a brutal sexual assault, who the district attorney's office said has absconded from probation. Mr. Mosley's whereabouts were unclear late Monday.
Prosecutors want to compare DNA from the men to the genetic evidence from the rape to find the true culprit.
James Lee Woodard was seeking a new trial at the 1981 hearing, alleging that prosecutors did not fully disclose information about Ms. Jones' whereabouts the night she was killed. The judge, John Ovard, who was also the trial judge, denied the new trial and formally sentenced him.
The judge and the district attorney's office could have righted Mr. Woodard's wrongful conviction in 1981, just months later, said Natalie Roetzel, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas.
"It's one of the most disturbing things about this case," she said. "Essentially, that was ignored because the investigators had the suspect they wanted."
Also, a prosecution witness changed his testimony since the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit independent legal clinic, began investigating Mr. Woodard's conviction. Ms. Jones' stepfather testified that on the night she was killed, Mr. Woodard came to the apartment in the middle of the night looking for her.
Oscar Edwards now says he believes Mr. Woodard was not the person who came to his door and did not kill his daughter, Mr. Ware said.
Mr. Woodard, who has a record for nonviolent crimes, is the second man cleared by DNA during a review of 350 defendants' requests for DNA tests that were denied under previous District Attorney Bill Hill.
Like many in Dallas County exonerated by DNA, Mr. Woodard was convicted during the era of District Attorney Henry Wade. Current District Attorney Craig Watkins has repeatedly said he believes that during this time, prosecutors were more focused on convictions than justice.
In several handwritten letters, Mr. Woodard begged Mr. Wade to reinvestigate his case and always maintained his innocence. He said that his letters were always answered by a prosecutor saying nothing could be done because a jury convicted him.
In a March 1985 letter, Mr. Woodard wrote to Mr. Wade: "If you found out for yourself that I was innocent, would you let me go?"