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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cleared by DNA, man tries to reclaim his life

Innocent_man_photo 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. [Mark Godsey]

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