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After Exoneration, Small Moments Take On New Meaning

James Lee Woodard was exonerated by DNA evidence after spending 27 years in prison.
James Lee Woodard was exonerated by DNA evidence after spending 27 years in prison.

This month brought two more exonerations based on new DNA evidence. Henry Lee McCollum was 19 years old and his half-brother, Leon Brown, was 15 when they were arrested. The two black, intellectually disabled half brothers were convicted of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old Sabrina Buie and spent 30 years on death row.

When the case was originally tried, there was no physical evidence that tied the brothers to the crime. Another man, who lived just a block away, confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl. The two rape/murders bore striking similarities, but that was ignored. Three decades later, a cigarette found near the scene of the Buie murder was tested for DNA. It contained the DNA of the same man who raped and killed the 18 year old.

It sounds remarkably like a case I covered in Texas, where 60-year-old Michael Morton was exonerated by DNA evidence after spending 25 years in prison, convicted of killing his wife. The district attorney in that case, Ken Anderson, went on to become a Texas judge. After new DNA evidence blew the Morton conviction to pieces, a plethora of exculpatory evidence was found in the DA files that all pointed to another man, who turned out to be the real killer.

As a result, Judge Anderson spent ten days in jail and lost his law license. Michael Morton lost 25 years of his life in prison, and being in Texas, was fortunate not to lose it all strapped to a gurney.

Wade Goodwyn's dogs, Miles and Rosie, greeted James Lee Woodard eagerly.
Wade Goodwyn / NPR
Wade Goodwyn's dogs, Miles and Rosie, greeted James Lee Woodard eagerly.

Six years ago, another wronged man — James Lee Woodard — came to my house to be interviewed, the very same day he'd been exonerated and got out of jail. My two big dogs, Miles and Rosie, came running into the room with stuffed toys in their mouths to demonstrate what fine guard dogs they were.

Miles jumped up and gave James Lee a big smooch right on the lips. "Come on guys, leave the man alone," I said, "Get out of here." Woodard stopped me, saying, "No, I love dogs."

"I guess it's been a while," I said regretting the words as they came out of my mouth.

Woodard teared up. "Twenty-seven years," he whispered, as he got down on both knees to play with Miles and Rosie. I stood there a while and watched, and then sat.

"Take your time, Mr. Woodard, " I said, "The interview can wait."

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