DNA Helps Free Inmate After 27 Years

60 Minutes: James Woodard Owes His Freedom To Project Started By Dallas County D.A.

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There's been some bitter soul searching going on in Dallas County, as one man after another is being released from prison after being convicted, years ago, of crimes they did not commit. As correspondent Scott Pelley reports, it happened again just last week with the release of a man who had been proclaiming his innocence, behind bars, for 27 years.

So far, 17 men have been cleared in Dallas - that's more than most states. All were put on trial by prosecutors who worked for the legendary District Attorney Henry Wade. Wade was Dallas' top prosecutor for more than 30 years. He never lost a case he handled personally. But it turns out the record of Wade's office was too good to be true. And now, a new Dallas district attorney is focusing on the Wade legacy - it's a search for innocent men waiting to be exonerated.

James Woodard went away in 1981, convicted in the murder of his girlfriend who had been raped and strangled. He was prosecuted by the office of District Attorney Henry Wade. For nearly 30 years, he never gave up writing letters, and filing motions. But no one was willing to grant him a hearing-until now.

60 Minutes was there last year when Woodard gave the DNA sample that would determine his true guilt or innocence. Since 2001, there has been a series of men in Dallas County who have walked from prison into freedom.

The exonerated include Eugene Henton, James Waller, who did almost 11 years, Greg Wallis, who was in for nearly 19, and James Giles, who did 10 years; Billy Smith was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and served nearly 20 years for a crime he didn't commit.

James Waller rejected a plea bargain for a rape he didn't commit. "They offered me three years. I turned it down. And I said, 'We go to trial.' And I came out with 30 years," he tells Pelley.

Asked why he turned down the deal, Waller says, "I know one day that I was gonna have to die, and I didn't want to go before God saying I did something that I didn't do."

"Greg, what did you lose in all that time?" Pelley asks.

"Well, I didn't get to see my boy growing up. He was two and a half when I left," Wallis says.

Wallis says his son is now 22 years old.

"To me, an apology, it won't do, because an apology can't bring back the time that I spent. It can't bring back my loved ones my loved ones. I lost ten family members while I was incarcerated. I never got to go to the funeral of any one of them. There are a lot of things that I could say that I lost. But then there's a lot of things that I could say that I can't tell you what I lost, 'cause I don't know," Billy Smith says.

"What do you mean you don't know what you lost?" Pelley asks.

"It's just like a part of me that's just gone. You know? I'm 20 years behind time. I was 35 when I got arrested. I'm 55 now," Smith explains. "But when I was ready for release, I wasn't excited about getting out. I still don't understand that today."

Asked how he could not be excited about getting out after all that time, Smith says, "Well, that's a part of me that I lost."

Michelle Moore and Jeff Blackburn are lawyers for The Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit group investigating wrongful prosecutions.

"What was the history of the Dallas County DA's office from, say, the 1950's to the 1990's," Pelley asks.

"Prosecute at all costs," Moore says. "It doesn't matter what they have as far as evidence. But if they've got anything that could tie this person into the case, then they were going to pursue the case against that person, even if it meant that they overlooked other suspects in a crime."

"Dallas got a reputation as the hardest, roughest county in the state. This was the one county that you did not wanna get accused of a crime in, because in this county, if you got charged with a crime you were likely gonna go to prison," Blackburn adds.

It was the late Henry Wade, a Texas legend, who ran the district attorney's office from 1951 to 1987.

Wade prosecuted Jack Ruby in the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. He's the Wade in "Roe v. Wade," the abortion case. His deputies played hardball, but Moore says they didn't always play by the rules.

"And 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 tells Pelley.

"You're saying that prosecutors had evidence that suggested innocence, and they didn't pass that on to the defense attorneys?" Pelley asks.

"That's correct," Moore says.

"But that's the law, isn't it?" Pelley asks.

"It is the law, but there's no penalty for prosecutors who don't give over evidence. You get a slap on the hand but you still get promoted because you got the conviction," Moore says.

"Prosecutors break the law, pay no penalty," Blackburn says. "Men get wrongfully convicted, and they can't get out because the system conspires to cover up their case. That's a crooked system."