By Francisco Lugo
Author Joyce King conducted a seminar at Texas State University on Thursday speaking on her book “Exonerated: A Brief and Dangerous Freedom,” which tells the story of her time spent helping unjustly imprisoned men and women get appeals for cases long forgotten by the state of Texas.
In 2007 King became the first non-jurist to serve on the executive board of directors for the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit organization that voluntarily sorts through old convictions in order to combat possible wrongful convictions and potentially free innocent prisoners.
The protagonist of King’s nonfiction book is James Woodard, a man who was convicted in 1981 for the rape and murder of his then-girlfriend Beverly Jones. Woodard served 27 years in prison, all the while proclaiming his innocence until he was finally released in 2008 as the 17th man exonerated by DNA testing in Dallas County. According to King, Dallas “is the DNA exoneration capital of the world.” Woodard received $4 million in compensation from the State of Texas which has so far distributed $60 million to exonerees.
King pointed out how the prosecutors involved in Woodard’s and many other inmates’ cases often leave out important circumstantial evidence that could have prevented incarceration in the first place. In Woodard’s case Jones’s stepfather testified against him, lying in court about witnessing Woodard accompanying Jones the night of her murder. Woodard’s own court appointed lawyer, King explained, did not even know that Jones had last been seen entering a vehicle with three men, none of whom were Woodard.
King further elaborated on how police often pressure witnesses and subtly persuade them to point out who the police want to convict rather than who the actual criminal is in a suspect lineup.
“In 75 percent of cases misidentification was the leading cause for incarceration,” King said.
However, with the help of Woodard’s testimony Texas House Bill 215 was passed in 2011. The bill protects suspects and witnesses from unlawful persuasion by investigators.
King also spoke about the love that she and Woodard developed through her participation in the Innocence Project. The couple were engaged at the time he died in October 2012. She said that she wants the public to realize that people deserve a second chance, especially if they’ve been wrongly convicted and to realize that prisoners are people after all.
“I want you to know this is a love story. I wanted to humanize him,” King said.
When asked if wrongful imprisonment is an overlooked issue, mass communication major Andrew Wallace-Bradley said “yes.”
“I think there are definitely a lot of cases of prosecutional misconduct that are overlooked,” Bradley said.
The session’s moderator, Dr. Laurie Fluker said she felt that the problem was bigger and that the source should be addressed as well.
“We have to be attuned to what is going on and more insistent on justice in our communities,” Fluker said.
Francisco Lugo is a junior at Texas State University majoring in Journalism and minoring in Psychology. If you would like to contact him you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org