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Cleared by DNA, man tries to reclaim his life

  • Story Highlights
  • DNA freed James Woodard after 27 years in prison
  • Woodard is one of 17 Dallas inmates cleared by DNA testing
  • Dallas County, Texas, leads the nation in DNA exonerations since 2001
  • D.A. Craig Watkins wants to prosecute any prosecutors who hide evidence
  • Next Article in Crime »
By Ed Lavandera
CNN
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This is the first of two stories on DNA exonerations in Dallas, Texas.

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James Woodard finds it hard to get a driver's license after 27 years in prison.

DALLAS, Texas (CNN) -- James Woodard is slowly returning to life. He is starting over after spending 27 years behind bars. He was wrongly imprisoned and cleared by DNA.

Routine chores are a test of endurance when the only identification card in his wallet is issued by the Texas prison system.

With his new friend, Clay Graham of the Innocence Project of Texas, serving as his guide and driver, Woodard is on the hunt for the basics of everyday life.

When he went off to prison, Ronald Reagan was president, gas was cheap, AIDS was barely on the radar and no one had a cell phone or a personal computer.

"It's sort of like waking up from a dream," Woodard said, walking through the corridors of Dallas City Hall, trying to track down his birth certificate. "When you first wake up you are first kind of groggy and then as time passes you get more coherent."

He may be free, but he doesn't have his life back yet -- or even proof of his life. He crisscrosses the city looking for the birth certificate. Watch Woodard make the rounds

He can't open a bank account with a prison-issued I.D. He can't get a state I.D. card without a birth certificate or Social Security card. It's not easy starting over. Woodard calls it an "adventure."

Woodard was convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend in 1981 and sentenced to life in prison. He was released on April 29, the 17th Dallas County inmate to be exonerated by DNA testing.

In one aspect at least, Woodard and the 16 others are lucky; the evidence that freed them was preserved even after their appeals were exhausted and the courts finalized their convictions. If they had been tried in a county or city that has no preservation laws, the DNA to clear them would have been destroyed long ago.

But more and more counties and states are passing laws for evidence preservation, according to the Innocence Project, practicing what Dallas County has long been doing.

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The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization, based in New York, dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing. Its Texas branch has been instrumental in handling the Dallas cases.

Since 2001, Dallas County has had more DNA exonerations than any other county in the nation.

For years, Woodard wrote letters to the prosecutors from his prison cell begging and pleading for help. Woodard says he never gave up hope. Read some of Woodard's letters »

"A man gives up hope, he gives up his life. You can't never give up hope," Woodard said.

But bad luck -- or maybe even bad faith -- put Woodard in prison in the first place. Woodard's attorney says prosecutors in the Dallas County district attorney's office sat on information that could have kept Woodard out of prison.

The jury believed Woodard was the last person seen with the victim. But according to court records, there were two other men that were with her. Police never followed up on the lead and prosecutors never shared the information with defense attorneys, even though they were legally obligated to do so.

Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins is on a mission to right the wrongs of the past. He's suggesting that it's time to start prosecuting the prosecutors to keep innocent people like James Woodard from going to prison. Learn about others exonerated by DNA evidence »

"When individuals intend to cause a person to be convicted for a crime they did not commit, that's an embarrassment for our profession," Watkins said during an interview at his office inside the Dallas courthouse.

Watkins says the prosecutor who handled Woodard's case deserves prison time. CNN made several attempts to reach the prosecutor involved. He did not return our calls.

Because it's unlikely that any of the prosecutors would face prison time under existing law, Watkins said, he wants to make it a crime from now on for prosecutors to knowingly hide or suppress evidence that could help a defendant.

"In order for us to have credibility with people and jurors and citizens I believe we had to take on this fight," he said.

Watkins' comments are sending shock waves through the Dallas legal community. Many of the prosecutors who handled the exonerated criminal cases have moved on to lucrative careers in private practice.

But many former prosecutors say the idea of criminalizing prosecutors' mistakes will have a chilling effect on the justice system.

"You need to be careful before you start saying 'Let's throw them in jail,'" said Robert Rogers, a former Dallas prosecutor.

Critics of Watkins' idea say the threat of criminal charges will drive people away from becoming prosecutors because they'd be afraid an honest mistake could cost them their careers, or even jail. But James Woodard thinks that kind of fear would make prosecutors think twice.

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The only time James Woodard sounds angry about his experience, spending half of his life in prison, is when he talks about the man who prosecuted him. Video Watch why he has no time for anger »

"I think he should pay a penalty. I paid 27 years," Woodard said. "He took my life away from me. What's the difference if it's by a gun, by words or by lies. What's gone is gone."

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