Ending Injustice by Changing the Law

May 8, 2008 at 8:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Photojournalist Steve Stewart and I made a day trip to Austin.

Our story : cover the meeting between six Dallas County men recently freed from prison by DNA evidence. 

Six of the nine men speaking were from Dallas County. The other three were from Travis County (Austin) and El Paso Counties.

Charles Chatman, Brandon Moon, James Woodard

The most recent man freed from prison was James Lee Woodard.  He spent 27 years locked up for a murder he didn’t commit. I asked him how he was doing since he got out. “Eight days. It’s been eight days.”  He’d been counting the days since he was freed. But he wanted to speak to lawmakers about what he went through, and what needs to change. I asked him about changes he’s noticed since he’s been out. He talked about how people dress differently, how downtown Dallas has grown, and how cell phones weren’t around when he went to prison.

It’s amazing what things have changed in that time when you stop and think about it.

Covering the meeting also gave me a chance to talk to the chief counsel for the Innocence Project of TexasJeff Blackburn.  Blackburn was the lawyer for the accused in Tulia, Texas. Like the exonerated men, I asked him what should be done to prosecutors who care more about convictions than the truth?  He told me “Crooked prosecution, you can fix that. You can create criminal penalties for prosecutors that act like crooks.” It might not be what a district attorney wants to hear, but it makes sense to Blackburn and the recently exonerated men.

Blackburn doesn’t shy away from talking about the current state of our criminal justice system, but he says he willing to work to change it. He told me “We can honestly say to ourselves right now that our system deserves little faith or credit, but the very fact that we’re here today shows that there is at least a chance at change.”

I also got to talk and shoot an NBC 5 web exclusive with  Dallas County DA Craig Watkins.  I asked him about the criticism about spending money to work on exonerating these men. He says it’s part of bringing trust back into the legal system. He also said while freeing innocent men it the right thing to do, it leaves more work for the system, as in, finding the guilty person who really committed the crime.

He mentioned how other DA’s across Texas need to look into exonerating innocent prisoners. Watkins told me the recent exonerations aren’t an indictment of the legal system, but a chance to show progress in fixing a flawed system.

Craig Watkins:”This is a double edged sword. We can free the innocent and convict the guilty. And they should embrace it.”

 I know this is a long post, but it’s a story that needs to be told.

These exonerations can have a huge ripple effect.  With trust of the legal system comes cooperation with authorities, with cooperation comes catching the guilty, and with catching the guilty comes real justice.

People like James Lee Woodard deserve that.

 

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