hen Alexis Hoff entered James Woodard’s cellphone number into her own cellphone, it finally hit her.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, he’s free,’ ” the UT Arlington and Texas Wesleyan Law School graduate said.
Hoff had worked for months through the Innocence Project of Texas (IPOT) to free Woodard, who had been wrongly convicted of rape and murder and spent 27 years in jail—one year more than Hoff has been alive.
John Stickels, a UT Arlington associate professor of criminology and criminal justice, sits on IPOT’s board of directors. He’s a volunteer who has recruited some of his students to help with appeals of people IPOT believes have been wrongly convicted.
“It gives them a chance to experience what the real world is like,” Dr. Stickels said. “And it applies through practice what they’re learning in the classroom. It is what’s really happening. It’s active learning.”
Stickels says that real world includes working with a Dallas County District Attorney’s Office that is actively trying to right some wrongs in the legal system.
“Look, the Innocence Project of Texas has been magnificent through this entire process, but so has Craig Watkins’ office. They’ve smoothed so many roads for us,” Stickels said. “They did a lot to free James Woodard, too.”
Hoff, who’s now pursuing “real” job opportunities in the legal system, says working on the Woodard case and others was an extraordinary opportunity.
“It was an edge-of-your-seat experience, the kind of thing you think might only happen in the movies, but it doesn’t,” she said. “I worked on James’ case from the very start, when IPOT first began investigating, straight through until Jeff Blackburn and I told him on April 28 that he’d be walking out of jail the next day.”
Hoff (’05 BA) recommended the case for testing after Mike Ware, head of the Dallas County Conviction Integrity Unit, alerted IPOT that Woodard’s file should be studied. IPOT board members and the integrity unit agreed with Hoff.
The case gained national attention as 60 Minutes, the legendary TV news magazine show, aired a 12-minute segment on Woodard’s unjust conviction. During the segment, Hoff and Blackburn, an IPOT attorney, revealed Woodard’s DNA test results from the alleged crime.
“The conclusion of the test was that there was not a match. It means that someone else raped Beverly Ann Jones,” Hoff told Woodard in the 60 Minutes episode. “It is my honor to be here today to tell you that after spending 27 years in jail for a crime you did not commit, you will walk out of this courthouse tomorrow a free man.”
“Are you sure I get out tomorrow?” Woodard asked in disbelief.
Hoff and Blackburn reassured him that he would. The next day, state District Judge Mark Stoltz set Woodard free.
“I cannot describe to you the feeling I had,” Hoff said. “I was so excited.”
She isn’t alone.
Many UT Arlington students, along with students from Texas Wesleyan University, the Texas Wesleyan School of Law, Texas Tech School of Law, South Texas College of Law and University of St. Thomas, work on IPOT cases.
You can tell how much the experience has affected the UT Arlington students by the way their voices quiver when talking about the program that has exonerated more than 30 wrongly convicted people in Texas. Nearly 20 of those have been in Dallas County.
“Just knowing you’re involved in something so important that it determines that someone gets his freedom leaves you with just a great feeling,” said Dorothy Whitehead (’08 BA), also featured in the 60 Minutes piece. “Freedom isn’t always free. For many of these wrongly convicted people, the Innocence Project of Texas is their last hope. If we don’t help them, no one will.”
Stickels says the tie between IPOT and UT Arlington grew stronger this fall when the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department started offering two classes in which students can work for the project. In addition, the department received a grant to help pay some of the filing fees for appeals or hearings, and some travel expenses.
“We are a volunteer group from six campuses, so every little bit helps,” Stickels said.
He estimates that 150 UT Arlington students have participated since the University became involved in 2003. He says there has been buy-in to IPOT because it has been effective, mainly through DNA testing.
“DNA is the ultimate truth in courtrooms. It cannot be refuted,” he said. “Unfortunately, in some cases DNA isn’t available or hasn’t been collected.”
In Woodard’s case, DNA evidence freed him. But it also was discovered that former prosecutors had concealed the fact that Woodard’s girlfriend had been in the company of another man that night—a man who had been charged with another sexual assault. Plus, eyewitness and expert testimonies had come into dispute.
Julpa Davé, a UT Arlington chemistry and criminal justice senior, says volunteering with IPOT has opened her eyes.
“I think before I started working on the Innocence Project of Texas, I took it for granted that everything the legal system did was right,” said Davé, who also appeared in the 60 Minutes story. “A lot of these people were put away for the benefit of prosecutors. The system failed. But I have faith that it will get better.”
Stickels says IPOT and others are urging the Legislature to fix the system in the spring when lawmakers meet. He said the group’s efforts are five-fold:
“There needs to be an attitude shift in prosecutors and police,” said Stickels, who has represented clients as a defense attorney and prosecuted defendants in West Texas as a district attorney. “There has to be a presumption of innocence, not guilt. Right now the court system is skewed toward convicting people, and once convicted, that system keeps them convicted no matter what.”
Roger Heath, a University of New Mexico third-year law student who earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at UT Arlington in 2006, believes those former Dallas County prosecutors owe it to the system as officers of the court to be concerned about wrongly convicted people.
“I think it is incumbent for the state to care,” said Heath, who continues to work on an innocence project in New Mexico and ranks his UT Arlington IPOT experience with that of any law school because of the leadership provided by Stickels. “With that said, the Dallas County DA’s office has gone from worst to first in its concern for the wrongfully convicted. It’s gone from an office that stonewalled defense attorneys to one of the most open.”
“We couldn’t do it without their concern in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office,” he said. “We have to trust that police officers and prosecutors will do the right thing. And 98 percent of the time, they do. It’s just taken a small percentage to make the entire system messier.”
Even though the percentage of wrongly convicted people may be small, it still bothers Stickels, Heath and everyone involved.
“There’s a great feeling for a moment,” Heath said of someone wrongly convicted being exonerated. “You’re very happy for the man who walked out of prison. But that happiness is tempered because for every guy who is freed, there are many whose evidence no longer exists to be tested. My heart goes out to those still wrongfully convicted.”
One of the men Stickels helped exonerate is Patrick Waller, who is considering enrolling at UT Arlington next semester. Waller was freed when DNA test results—something he had requested for years—proved he did not commit rape in 1992.
“He already has a bunch of hours of college credit from taking courses in prison,” Stickels said.
The fact that the Dallas County DA’s office kept evidence from these older cases is one of the system’s saving graces, Stickels says, but the fact that it took so long for Waller to get a DNA test is what needs attention.
“It’s tough but very satisfying work,” he said. “And I see signs of it turning around.”
All the students said policies and requirements are softening, especially in Dallas County. They all agree, too, that the feeling they get when someone is exonerated is like hitting a home run in the courtroom.
“I will tell you that nothing may top helping free James [Woodard] in my entire legal career,” Hoff said. “And I’d be OK with that.”
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