NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
He was among the most high profile exonerees in the nation. James Woodard was wrongly imprisoned, then released in 2008 after 27 years behind bars.
Four years later, when Woodard was found dead in a Dallas County Jail cell in 2012, there was little publicity. Now, those who knew Woodard best are questioning the roles of the very people who helped set him free.
This is a story of liberty and death.
Just before midnight on Oct. 14, 2012, inmates on the 6th floor of the Dallas County Jail heard a thud.
The prisoner in Cell H suffered a seizure, fell out of his bunk, onto the floor. Jailers and paramedics rushed to his aid, but the inmate was dead.
It was the tragic end to a once-celebrated man, who four years earlier had become the national face of justice denied.
James Lee Woodard had been in prison 27 years for a Dallas County murder he didn’t commit when he was proven innocent and released in 2008.
"60 Minutes" told his story. Woodard lobbied nationally for exoneree rights. He propelled the career of recently-elected District Attorney Craig Watkins to national heights.
Things changed, though, when Woodard’s $4 million exoneree compensation kicked in, said local author Joyce King, who was engaged to Woodard at the time.
"I just saw money go out the door,” she said. “I would tell him, ‘Babe, you can't help everyone. You can’t save everyone who comes along with a story.’”
Woodard wrote a $100,000 check to the Innocence Project of Texas, which helped to free him. He wrote a $5,000 check to Gov. Rick Perry and another $5,000 went to Watkins.
An Innocence Project of Texas attorney, Clay Graham, also got a check, as did Natalie Ellis, an Innocence Project volunteer who had become one of Woodard's best friends.
“He hated the fact that he got the money, and I think every month as soon as he got his check it was like he would go take care of his sister and her family and help his cousins and really anybody,” Ellis said.
Before long, the money morphed into expensive cars and small amounts of drugs.
In February 2012, after Woodard was arrested for assault and possession, Innocence Project of Texas President Gary Udashen and attorney Graham began handling his criminal cases.
Why? Because a felony conviction of any sort — and, by law, the approximately $14,000 a month in exoneree compensation Woodard was getting from the state — would stop.
Hoping to simplify his life, Woodard granted Graham “power of attorney,” letting Graham share his bank account and write checks.
King said Graham put tight controls on their money and the stress began to mount.
She said Woodard's drug use increased, and his history of neurological seizures became more frequent.
“In fact, I called his legal team in July, quite frantic,” King said. “I was very worried about him.”
A short time later, King and Woodard split up. On August 19, 2012, Woodard was rearrested with less than a gram of cocaine.
But this time, his attorneys opted not to bail him out and left Woodard in jail.
While there, his seizures started to intensify. At one point, he was hospitalized, then taken back to the Lew Sterrett Justice Center.
From his cell, Woodard began writing letters, to judges, to the attorney general, and others. He wanted to fire his attorneys, Udashen and Graham, who, according to Woodard, were denying him his right to post bail.
He wrote that he wanted to revoke Graham's power of attorney.
- PDF: Woodard's letter to Judge Metcalf
- PDF: Woodard's letter to Judge Susan Hawk
- PDF: Woodard's letter to Judge John Creuzot
Woodard wrote that he wanted no part of a deal his lawyers were trying to make with the Dallas County district attorney that would “dispose of my case without documentation.”
“I… do not wish to make any deals, but would rather let my case proceed through the judicial process … and let my guilt or innocence be decided by a court of law,” Woodard wrote.
While Woodard was behind bars in August, September and October of 2012, Graham continued to access Woodard's bank account. He wrote himself nearly $2,000 in checks for attorneys fees and other reimbursements.
“Clay Graham wrote check, after check, after check to himself,” Ellis said. “He had full access to James' account.”
After nearly two months behind bars, a few minutes before midnight on October 14, inmates heard the thud in Cell H.
Woodard had a seizure and died.
"That's how my brother died — on the floor,” said Corey Sessions, policy director for the Innocence Project of Texas after News 8 showed him a photograph of Woodard on the floor of his cell the night he died.
Sessions’ brother, Timothy Cole, died in a Texas prison in 1999 and was also wrongly convicted.
“James is like a brother,” Sessions said of Woodard.
Sessions said that if Woodard needed drug treatment, his attorneys should have posted his bail quickly and provided help, rather than leaving him in jail for nearly two months.
“He had the money,” Sessions said.
According to Ellis, Woodard’s attorneys should be held accountable. “I just don't see how they can sit there every day and talk about righting wrongs and getting justice for people when they couldn't even get justice for James,” Ellis said.
Graham initially agreed to an on-camera interview, but later declined.
Udashen also declined an on-camera interview. But in a series of e-mails, he defended his work on behalf of Woodard.
“I was in discussions with the District Attorney’s office in an attempt to avoid these arrests resulting in a felony conviction, James going back to prison and losing his state annuity,” Udashen wrote.
“I had not yet reached any agreement with the District Attorney’s office. However, it was the DA’s position, based on James' subsequent arrests after posting bond, that they would oppose him being released from jail and that if bond was posted they would have moved the court to hold the bond insufficient. The result would have been that James would have been kept in jail, regardless of any attempts to bond him out,” Udashen added.
District attorney representative Russell Wilson disagrees. “I don't think we left James Woodard in jail,” Wilson told News 8 in an interview. Wilson said his office was not opposed to Woodard posting bail. He also believed Woodard needed drug treatment.
Wilson said it’s “simply inaccurate” that it was the DA’s office that kept Woodard’s attorneys from bonding him out prior to his death in October 2012.
Both sides say their goal was to save James Woodard from himself.
None of that matters to Ellis, who contemplates a keepsake given to Woodard by the Innocence Project of Texas. It’s a dog tag, inscribed with the words that trigger a bitterness she finds hard to shake.
“How can they call him ‘colleague,’ ‘friend’ and ‘beloved’ and leave him in that situation?” she asked.