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Freed by DNA, Angola Prisoner Henry James on His 30 Years Behind Bars for Crime He Didn’t Commit

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We broadcast from New Orleans, Louisiana, the heart of the world’s prison capital, where more people are behind bars any other state per capita — an incarceration rate 13 times that of China. Louisiana also ranks among the highest in the country in terms of the number of people per capita who are exonerated after serving years in prison for crimes they did not commit. We are joined by Henry James, the longest-serving prisoner to be exonerated in Louisiana. James spent 30 years in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola prison, on a life sentence without parole for rape. At trial, the prosecution never told the jury that serology testing from the rape kit excluded James as the perpetrator. In 2011, DNA evidence found by accident proved James’ innocence, winning him his release. We also speak with Emily Maw, director of Innocence Project New Orleans, which helped win his exoneration. “Henry James’ case is unfortunately atypical. Everybody in Louisiana who is convicted of murder or rape gets sentenced to life without parole. There is no other sentence for those two crimes. What is atypical about Henry’s case is that they found the evidence,” Maw says. “In Louisiana, as in many places, evidence storage and preservation practices are atrocious. People lose evidence all the time in cases where DNA testing could prove their innocence.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in New Orleans, Louisiana, broadcasting from New Orleans public television station WLAE. Louisiana is the world’s prison capital, with more people behind bars per capita than any other state and an incarceration rate 13 times that of China. Louisiana also ranks among the highest in the country in terms of the number of people per capita who are exonerated after serving years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Well, today we look at the case of one of those men. Henry James served 30 years in Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola prison. He had been sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1982 after he was convicted of raping his neighbor, largely based on her eyewitness testimony. Henry James had been to the victim’s house several times to help her husband work on his car, and she did not originally name him as her attacker. At the trial, the prosecution never told the jury that serology testing, blood testing, from the rape kit excluded Henry James as the perpetrator. James’ own defense attorney failed to use this evidence to free his client even as James maintained his innocence and three alibi witnesses supported his testimony that he had been asleep at home at the time of the crime.

Well, after all of his appeals had been exhausted, Henry James, still in prison, turned to the Innocence Project for help. He asked them to get the DNA evidence gathered in the rape kit. But first it had to be found. The lab director searched through the old evidence stored in the Jefferson Parish Crime Lab to no avail. About a year later, he accidentally stumbled upon a slide with the sample of the attacker’s blood while looking for evidence in a different case. The blood tests proved Henry James was innocent, and in October of 2011 he was exonerated and released from prison.

Henry James joins us here now in the New Orleans studios here at New Orleans public television. We’re also joined by Emily Maw, director of The Innocence Project New Orleans.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Henry James, how did it feel to be free when you were released in 2011 after 30 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit?

HENRY JAMES: It felt like—you know, it was a wonderful feeling. And there was a feeling that—you know, I felt that I was going to prevail, come out one day, you know, because opportunity—I kept on fighting and never gave up hope on the battlefield, knowing all the time that I was innocent.

AMY GOODMAN: Go back to the early 1980s and tell us what happened. How did you end up in jail?

HENRY JAMES: I ended up in prison—I mean, I ended up in jail because, you know, officers sort of put some things—put some things in place that put me on a crime, and that all the time I was telling them I wasn’t on the crime, for number one, I think. They picked me up off my job, telling me that, you know, I raped a lady that I didn’t know who they was talking about. And after that, you know, further interrogating me, you know, I later on learned that—who the person was, and when they made me remember who the person was, you know, I immediately cooperated with them as to—to let them know more about my relationship with those people.

And my relationship, like you said, was only through the fact that I was only trying to get my car fixed, and I just was trying to be sociable toward them. And in the course of me being sociable toward them, I think, because I got discharged—I think the officer put me, because of the accident, all right? And when we got in an accident, I think that officer interrogated this guy as to wanting to know who the other guy that left the accident, because I left the scene of the accident. And I think when I left the scene of the accident, and by him being charged with DWI, and the accident never was mentioned. So, I’m thinking that the way this thing rolled out is that with him being charged with DWI and me leaving the scene, so the question come up to the officers was who the guy was that left the scene. And I think when they learned who left the scene of the accident and they learned that it was me, I think that then, some type of way, that the lady’s husband and the officers, they know they work out a deal to see that it was me, or story to come out the same way. “Hey, OK, this is Henry James. This is the guy he was with you in the accident?” They say, “Yeah, OK.”

I’m thinking that from that point, the officers then, you know, convinced him some type of way that if he will go along with the story, this particular story here that what they alleged against me, that if they go along with that, that the accident will go away, that the damage will go, because I know he didn’t have insurance. I know he didn’t have enough money to pay for the damage. So, for to say he just charged with DWI and that the accident never was mentioned, so him and the law officer had to make some kind of deal. And then to add the fact that the officer that was in charge, Officer Gilyard [phon.], at the time, he knew me. I think that Officer Gilyard worked with the lady’s husband, and he coached him in a lot of things and maybe made some promises. As a result of that, it led to me. And it would have led to me—I mean, why, if you know who the person is, why wait two or three days to come pick me up?


EMILY MAW: Sure. You know, what’s one of the interesting things about Henry’s case is that when the woman was, you know, very horribly raped—there’s no question about that—when she initially reported to the police that she had been attacked, she said a man came into her house and attacked her. Now, of course, the interesting thing is that Henry had spent a significant amount of that day watching football with her husband. I think it was a Sunday, Henry, is that right?

HENRY JAMES: Right, right, Sunday.

EMILY MAW: And they had been driving around together. First they worked on the car. Then they went to a bar, I think, and were watching some football. And what Henry is referring to is that Henry and the woman’s husband had got into an accident because, frankly, they had had too much to drink. The husband was driving the car, and they left the scene of the accident. The husband was ultimately put in the drunk tank. And so, there was some—you know, the police then went back after the victim initially didn’t give them any leads on who it was or, you know, didn’t know who it was. She just said a man had raped her. They went back and, you know, potentially suggested Henry’s name or maybe just showed her a book full of photographs in which Henry’s picture was there. It’s a little unclear from the paperwork how that happened, but I think Henry is saying—


EMILY MAW: —that he has some—you know, some suspicion that because he had been at the scene of the accident, that that was somehow used against him.


AMY GOODMAN: And so, you go to trial, and there was a blood test that was done. How do they have the blood of the attacker?

EMILY MAW: I think it was semen, actually.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, it was the semen.

EMILY MAW: Yeah, it was from a rape kit, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Ah, uh-huh.

HENRY JAMES: Right, they told me—after I agreed to give them that evidence, because they told me if I gave them that evidence, then nothing would, you know, lead to me, they was going to let me go.

EMILY MAW: Routinely in rape cases, the police, when they’re examining the victim, will take what’s called a rape kit, which is any semen that the attacker left, any pubic hairs, anything really that gives them forensic clues as to who could have been the person who committed the crime.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, this rape kit excluded you. I mean, the test excluded you, that the semen test did not match. But this was not raised in court?

HENRY JAMES: No, I didn’t know anything about it.

EMILY MAW: Well, what happened was that there was a—there is something called a secretor status and non-secretor status. If you are somebody who is secretor status, if you leave saliva or semen somewhere, your blood type will be seen in that saliva or semen. If you are not, you can only find out your status through the blood. So the initial testing that was done in Henry’s case, Henry is a secretor, and they didn’t find any secretor activity in the semen that was deposited during the rape.

That was probably raised by Henry—it was raised by Henry’s trial lawyer at trial, but in the worst possible way, because all he did—the prosecution gave that to the defense, so there is—that wasn’t withheld. Henry’s disastrous lawyer entered the report into evidence without explaining to the jury what it meant, which is that it was very unlikely that Henry could have left that semen. And so, it was in the record, but no one ever got an explanation of what it was, why it was very important in Henry’s case. So, to some extent, then, later on, Henry’s case was very, very difficult, because every court looking at it said, “Well, this report was in the record.” It’s just that it was in the record and no one ever explained to the jury what it meant, subsequently, and that—you know, and people may have their explanations about, well, maybe there wasn’t enough to detect the right kind of blood secretor status, there were forensic ways that maybe it could have been explained, so reviewing courts just didn’t give it any credence, until we were able to do the DNA testing that completely excluded him and showed that that report had in fact been accurate, it wasn’t him, and 30 years later really confirmed that Henry wasn’t a perpetrator of that crime.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion with Henry James, who was exonerated in 2011 after 30 years in Angola prison; Emily Maw, also with us, director of The Innocence Project New Orleans. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from New Orleans public television, WLAE, here in Louisiana. We are joined by Henry James, who was exonerated in 2011 after 30 years in Angola prison. Emily Maw is director the Innocence Project of New Orleans.

How did you survive all of those decades in jail? Did you give up hope? You were sentenced to life in prison—

HENRY JAMES: Without benefit [inaudible] parole or probation.

AMY GOODMAN: Without parole.

HENRY JAMES: Or probation. That’s the end of the sentence.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened at the end that ultimately freed you?

HENRY JAMES: What happened at the end that ultimately freed me, I just say thank God for DNA. That’s what freed me, you know, and, look, I mean, I carried on a lot on my shoulder in prison, because I felt like justice wasn’t served to me, you know. And I’m still feeling today like I’m falling short, even though I’m free. You know, I mean, I had—I got four children, you know, that never been talked about. You know, I got four witnesses that was in court, that just been looked over. Then I was tried by a jury that wasn’t my appearance.

Then the fact that officers framed me, I’m going to say, because how can—you know, the lady said that the officer’s report saying they got on the scene two minutes after it happened. OK, but I got a problem with the officer saying he got—he transferred the victim from the residence to the hospital, OK, and then the [inaudible] report that is showing that after they get to the hospital, you understand—or the question was raised to one officer, was he able to come up with a suspect? And the one officer, you know, told the trial—tried to say yeah. And he said—they asked him how that they was able to come up with a suspect. They said, after talking to the witness, they was able to come up with a photograph. In other words, what I’m trying to say here is that the victim was transferred from residence to the Earl K. Long Hospital. After they got to Earl K. Long Hospital, one officer gave another officer a photograph of me and transferred it to Jefferson Parish and put it in a known sex offender book. I had never been charged with a sex offense before. Wouldn’t that be like leading a witness? Where did the picture come from between the residence and the hospital?


EMILY MAW: I think one of the things that’s interesting about Henry’s case is this idea that an eyewitness identification is all you need, really, and even if there’s physical evidence that contradicts that eyewitness identification. And I think a lot of what Henry is feeling is what a lot of people who get misidentified feel, which is that even if this was an innocent mistake, how did this happen? How did this woman get my picture and identify me when I didn’t do it?

AMY GOODMAN: And so there was the semen test, and then there was the DNA test.

EMILY MAW: That’s right. Those are two different things.


EMILY MAW: So, in 1982, when Henry went to trial, we didn’t—there was no such thing as DNA testing.


EMILY MAW: Serology testing, which is blood typing—are you A, B or O, positive or negative—was the kind of thing that you would do.


EMILY MAW: And with that, you can exclude people. If it’s B blood type and the perpetrator has A, then you know that person’s excluded—but only in very broad group terms. You can never say this is the profile of the perpetrator, and that is not Henry James’s profile, in the way that with DNA you can. So when DNA was available, even though there was this—you know, what we would consider an exclusion by blood typing, serology testing, even at the time of trial, the much more specific, less disputable DNA exclusion that came along 30 years later, when we were ultimately able to find the semen that the rapist had left—30 years later, they had kept it—we were able to test it and show conclusively that that eyewitness was mistaken.

AMY GOODMAN: So the lab director looked for months.

EMILY MAW: Two full days, actually, was what happened. Two full days we spent searching, with the DA’s office, who fully cooperated and felt that this was an important case to test.

AMY GOODMAN: And you looked, as well?

EMILY MAW: And our office and the lab director. We went through every books of everything they had.

AMY GOODMAN: When I say months, what I mean is, so you had the search—

EMILY MAW: Uh-huh.

AMY GOODMAN: —but then it was many months—

EMILY MAW: It was a couple of months. I’m a little—I can’t remember exactly.


EMILY MAW: It was a chunk of time later. And, you know, the lab director was good enough to remember the case number when he was searching for something else, and immediately called everybody and said, “That piece of evidence we looked for for two days, we found it.” And everybody agreed immediately that it should be sent off for testing.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, Henry James, you were exonerated. Now, Louisiana is one of, what, some two dozen states that gives money for those who have been exonerated, held in prison wrongly accused—you for 30 years. But there’s a cap. And what is it? Twenty-five thousand every year for each year until 10 years, and there’s a cap on it at 10 years. So you get $250,000.


AMY GOODMAN: Do you get it all at once?

HENRY JAMES: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: All at once, they give it to you. Or do they give it to you year—

HENRY JAMES: No, they give it to me yearly.



AMY GOODMAN: So, [$25,000] a year.

HENRY JAMES: Yeah. And I done did 30 years.

AMY GOODMAN: You should be getting, just by this—


AMY GOODMAN: —$750,000, but Louisiana capped it.

HENRY JAMES: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you sue?

HENRY JAMES: I wished I could. I wished I could. But, see, I’m not legally inclined, and I have the people that I’ve been talking from here, and I have no one that to come to me to try to, you know, pursue that issue.

EMILY MAW: In most wrongful conviction cases, there is not a civil suit that can be brought. The insulation from liability in those cases—they’re generally called 1983 cases—is so high, people are so insulated from the suit, and what you have to prove is not what usually happens, that almost nobody—a very, very small proportion of people who are wrongly convicted recover in a civil suit.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe, Henry James, what Angola was like? It’s often referred to as a plantation prison. What did you do every day?

HENRY JAMES: What did I do every day?

AMY GOODMAN: Did you go—did you—

HENRY JAMES: I worked in a field.

AMY GOODMAN: In the fields of the prison.

HENRY JAMES: In the fields, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Doing what?

HENRY JAMES: For four cent. The land, like slave—slavery-type stuff, cropping the fields. And I picked cotton.

AMY GOODMAN: You were picking cotton.

HENRY JAMES: I done pick cotton. I done pick cotton, pull cotton, burn cotton. We done chop—we call chop ditches, done chop the levee. We done pick tomatoes, okra. I done pick cabbage, greens, pull—and pull and plant potatoes. I mean, I literally did this type of stuff in the wintertime 'til my hand was cold. My hands couldn't literally move. But I had to stay out there in that cold, you understand, or go to the dungeon.

AMY GOODMAN: The dungeon?

HENRY JAMES: Yeah. That’s the hole.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the dungeon?

HENRY JAMES: In other words, that if you don’t cooperate with authority, then go along with doing the fieldwork, they will lock you up.

AMY GOODMAN: In solitary confinement.

HENRY JAMES: Right. And—

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the dungeon like? Had you ever been there?

HENRY JAMES: Yeah, I’ve been there. It’s like—it’s confinement. You stay there for about—I mean, you get—you stay there for whatever violation you’re in, 'til you go to court. And when you stay in there, it's more like they don’t really clean up like they’re supposed to in there. You stay in there for a length of time. You will go to court. When you go to court, whatever report been wrote against you, then you’re subject to 10 days there, lost store privilege, visiting, too [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Were you injured while you were working the fields picking cotton, other crops?

HENRY JAMES: Was I injured?


HENRY JAMES: If you take sick or idle, I’m going to say—if you take sick-idle, they will send what they call a sick call truck to come see you. And when they come see you, you know they will probably—you’ve got to pay for that. And you got to pay for them coming out there and see you. You also got to pay for the—any type of medicated treatment they give you.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you injured at all in prison?


AMY GOODMAN: What happened?

HENRY JAMES: I got a dislocated shoulder, where I fell in the band room, which was a classroom in school, in literature school. And I stayed in the dungeon after I fell. They locked me up because they tried to make it look like something it wasn’t, a fight. And what happened was, I went to the dungeon. And I stayed back—they put me in the cell, maybe 13 or 14. For 30 days, you know, I stayed back there. And I tried to get sick call. And sick call, them people will come out, and they will come with attitude towards you. And they will leave your cell, you know, just saying for any excuse where against they give their authority. Where they give their authority, that which it’s going to be. But anyway, they didn’t want to hear my complaint. And I stayed there for 30 days, nearly 30 days, suffering. And I didn’t know—I didn’t know that I had—I didn’t know that I had a dislocated shoulder until I got out. I got out. But when you’re able to get out of the dungeon, you’re able to move around a little bit more. Then you’re able to make phone calls. You know, so when I got out, I made some phone calls to some friends and outside people, and they will call up there and complain about, and that—about me complaining about my shoulder. And that’s how I got some medical help from Earl K. Long.

AMY GOODMAN: You learned to read and write in prison?


AMY GOODMAN: How did that change you?

HENRY JAMES: It changed me from being a better person, because I was ignorant, you know, and I was ignorant to a lot of things that was going on, what I was into. And by me going there, in prison, and practically educating myself and learning from other guys’ experience—other guys that done been there, they experienced the same experience I had experienced, you see. I had a chance to go to the law library. Something that I didn’t understand, I had people there, you know, to help me to understand.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you had four children.

HENRY JAMES: Yes, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: You came out of prison 30 years later.

HENRY JAMES: Fortunately when I left, they was babies.

AMY GOODMAN: What was that like?

HENRY JAMES: It’s—right now, because it affected—my absence affected my family, you know, and I’m still trying right now, you know, to work with some family—

AMY GOODMAN: They’re in their thirties now.

HENRY JAMES: That’s right. And they was babies when I left. It affected them, you know, and, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: How do you repair that family relationship?

HENRY JAMES: I guess with kind treatment, you know, and, you know, I try to repair, and just I try to be there for them the best that I could, and just try—continually try to show them love and try to support them the best way that I could.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily Maw, how typical is Henry James’ case? Thirty years in prison, he was sentenced to life without parole—until you found this slide, the DNA test that freed him.

EMILY MAW: Henry James’s case is, unfortunately, atypical. Everybody in Louisiana who is convicted of murder or rape gets sentenced to life without parole. There is no other sentence for those two crimes. What is atypical about Henry’s case is that they found the evidence. In Louisiana, as in many places, evidence storage and preservation practices are atrocious. People lose evidence all the time in cases where DNA testing could prove their innocence. And so, while we have managed to free people with DNA testing in our office, the vast majority of people whose guilt could be confirmed or whose innocence could be proven by DNA testing will never get the opportunity to do that, because the state authorities have simply lost the evidence, because nobody invests in practices that promote orderly evidence storage and evidence storage that means that 30 years later you can find a slide. So, tragically, his case is atypical.

AMY GOODMAN: His case—the slide was found by accident.


AMY GOODMAN: The search had already been done, and it wasn’t found.

EMILY MAW: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, working on a totally different case, the lab director finds the slide.

EMILY MAW: Looking in a different area, yes, that’s right. And so, obviously, you know, most people, their story ends when nobody finds the slide, you know, as happened originally in Henry’s case. But by the grace of God and by some, you know, good work by the crime lab director in looking out for it—


AMY GOODMAN: And by Henry James. How did you find the Innocence Project? I mean, you were in jail forever then.

HENRY JAMES: I found them through—I mean, I think through a newspaper ad or—or, see, they got then they call a—we get magazines, in other words, that—you know, that get certain things, give legal works, an address, different organizations on the outside. And this is how that a friend of mine came to me, you know, gave me the address and told me I should write these people.

AMY GOODMAN: From your injury, that has made it difficult for you to work, getting out of prison, you went to the Social Security office?


AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

HENRY JAMES: They rewarded me—they found that, you know, I wasn’t—you know, I’m disabled and some other issues. And they rewarded me from the time I applied until the time that was—they awarded me from the time I applied until about—you know, they awarded me from the first time I applied until early this year, early last year. They awarded me something like, you know, over a thousand. You didn’t know about that?

EMILY MAW: I didn’t know, Henry.

HENRY JAMES: Yeah, they did. And what happened was that the Social Security office, they took it to another level. And they wanted [inaudible] a lot—and they’re saying that I wouldn’t—indirectly saying I wasn’t eligible because I’ve been awarded by the state.

AMY GOODMAN: Because you were getting money from the state—


AMY GOODMAN: —you weren’t eligible for Social Security.


AMY GOODMAN: Because the state was—

HENRY JAMES: Not really not eligible, because the judge ruled in my favor. So what they were saying, in so many words, is that because the kind of reward I got from the state—

EMILY MAW: Mm-hmm.

HENRY JAMES: —that’s why I wouldn’t—that wouldn’t make me qualify, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: So the reparations you got from the state would disqualify you for getting the—

HENRY JAMES: Right, right, right, for right now.

AMY GOODMAN: —aid for being disabled and not being able to work.

HENRY JAMES: Right, right, right.

EMILY MAW: So you can choose to b compensated for the fact of your wrongful imprisonment or the fact of the injury you sustained, but you can’t have both.

HENRY JAMES: Right. I got some more people working on that.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel to be able to just walk out of this studio at the end of this interview and go outside?

HENRY JAMES: Oh, and it feel wonderful. It feel wonderful. All I can say, I just thank God, you know, that—you know, he brought me through it, you know, because they had a lot of—they had a lot of wrong turns I could have took. And then, the thing about it, in my work, I try to be an example for others. You know, I took my experience, what I was experiencing, and I share it with other people to try to give them some hope, you know, and that support, because, you know, in Angola, they don’t—they don’t have many guys like me that talk about—nobody normally that—the cat in the hat talking about going home, you know? And I feel like going home, you know, was the thing, because we can set there how much—we can set there, and we can tell each other all type of stories about what we want to do and we like to do, but if you don’t work toward it, you know, and try to get with somebody on the outside that can help us, you understand, we’re just going to set there, grow old and die. You know, and I was trying to tell a guy that’s not sure everything that I’ve—the [inaudible] happening, I share with other guys. I work in a kitchen, anyway, by the fact.

[Editor’s note: Footage of Henry James walking out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary was courtesy of Evil Penguin Films.]

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Henry James, I want to thank you very much for spending time with us today, and also Emily Maw. Emily Maw is director of the Innocence Project of New Orleans. Henry James was exonerated in 2011 after 30 years at Angola prison.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to hear about the case of another man. He’s one of the Angola Three. His name is Herman Wallace. He’s dying in prison right now, any day now, of liver cancer. He was in solitary confinement for 42 years. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us. We’re broadcasting from Louisiana.

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Cancer-Stricken Angola 3 Prisoner Herman Wallace Given Just Days to Live After 42 Years in Solitary

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