Death row inmate's case struck down old state death penalty

Death row inmate's case struck down old state death penalty

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by STUART WATSON / NewsChannel 36
E-mail Stuart: SWatson@WCNC.com

Bio | Email | Follow: @stuartwcnc

WCNC.com

Posted on November 20, 2009 at 11:17 PM

RALEIGH, N.C. -- When the North Carolina courts ordered a former death row inmate to be released, many Carolinians wanted to know one thing: "How can this happen?"

How can an inmate sentenced to die be returned to the streets? The NewsChannel 36 I-Team tracked down the man whose case started it all.
 
His full name is James Tyrone Woodson -- as in James Tyrone Woodson versus the State of North Carolina. Thirty-three years ago that case -- his case -- went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In 1976, the Woodson decision overturned North Carolina's death penalty.
 
Now, James Woodson is free. He's been out of prison for 18 years. And many Sundays you can find him at the Trinity United Faith church service in Raleigh.
 
"God can open the door that no man can close and close the door that no man can open," says Woodson.
 
For many inmates, "getting religion" is quite simply one more con. It's viewed as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card. But James Woodson doesn't have to go to church to get out of prison. He doesn't need to con anyone. 
 
He once faced the gas chamber. "And it would always be in my mind," he says. "When are they coming to get me?"
 
He was convicted of murder -- although he didn't kill anyone. Woodson says he was forced to go along on a convenience store robbery in Dunn, N.C., in 1974.
 
"I was beaten -- pistol-whipped in my face before the robbery and after the robbery and taken along by gunpoint," he says.
 
One of the robbers, Luby Waxton, shot and killed the clerk, Shirley Smith Butler. Waxton died in prison. 
 
In the mid-70's North Carolina law said anyone convicted of crimes like murder went straight to death row.
 
But in the case of Woodson versus North Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such an "automatic" death sentence was unconstitutional.
 
So what happened to James Woodson's death sentence? "It was commuted to life and it stopped 120 people from going to the gas chamber," says Woodson. 
 
Life in prison -- under state law at the time -- meant 80 years. With good behavior inmates could be released in less than half that time. Just this week North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue announced she would fight to keep some of those former death row inmates in prison.
 
An I-Team review of the cases of the 120 inmates on death row when the Woodson case was decided found that of those still alive, more of the inmates have been released from prison than are still locked up.
 
"I'm not saying that everybody is innocent because they're not," says Woodson.

When asked if the Department of Corrections can really correct criminal behavior, Woodson replies, "You have to want to change. Can't nobody make you change."
 
Woodson says he understands many North Carolinians are angry and afraid at the thought of death row inmates being released. "I met other men in prison who were so evil I said to them: 'They should never let you go.'"
 
But James Woodson believes some people can change. He believes God can change them. And he's not the man he once was.
 
He says, "I, James Tyrone Woodson, don't ever want to be in prison again."

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