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Freedom…30 Years Later

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It was a feeling of a miracle,” said Henry James Jr., describing his exoneration after serving 30 years in the Angola State Prison for a crime that he did not commit. James had been convicted for raping a woman at knife-point back in May of 1981. James is the 12th person to be exonerated by DNA testing in Louisiana since 1999.

While imprisoned, James fought hard for justice. He was determined to find the evidence that would prove that he was not the man that broke into his neighbor’s home and then sexually assaulted her. James did not lose faith, even after potentially exculpatory DNA evidence was inconclusive. He was sure that one day he would be free. James stated, “I kept praying and telling myself, It’s going to be alright. God is going to make a way for you.” James’ prayers were answered once crime lab official, Milton Dureau, stumbled upon missing DNA evidence last year while looking for evidence for a different case at a Jefferson Parish crime lab. New York-based Innocence Project attorney, Vanessa Potkin, said, “Because He [Milton] had looked so long for hard evidence in Henry’s case, the case number was ingrained in his head.”

James was 20 years old when he entered prison, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Upon James’ release, all he wanted was a shrimp po-boy and sweet potato fries to celebrate his victory. “This is how a person should eat. It’s been a decade or two since I had anything like this,” said James. He even traded his prison uniform for a crisp three-piece suit.

Back in 1981, the rape victim told investigators that she did not know who her attacker was. She was only able to give a vague description of the suspect. Police who were out patrolling the neighborhood where she lived, stopped James who roughly fit the description that the woman gave. The day before the rape, James spent some time helping the woman’s husband fix his car. Later that same day, James went to the woman’s house to inform her that her husband had been arrested after getting into a car crash while giving James a ride. The rape occurred 10 hours after that conversation.

In spite of all that has been done to him, James does not hold any resentment against anyone, including his accuser. He said, “I’m sorry that it happened to her, if it happened, but I don’t have bad feelings toward her. That is over, and I’m putting it behind me.”

James is eligible for up to $250,000 under the state’s no-fault policy for compensating those that are exonerated of crimes. However, James’ attorneys are planning to ask the state Legislature to raise the limit as they believe the amount is unfair in relation to James’ circumstances.

James is ready to live the life that he has imagined for 30 years while behind bars. He cannot believe the advancements in society, specifically technologically, since he was in jail. “Everything is kind of odd after being out of society for years,” he said. “But I’m pretty fast at learning. I think I can survive.”

James is truly a survivor, after spending 30 long, hard years in one of the nation’s toughest prisons. “Angola has so many people who will kill your spirit if you let them,” James said. “It’s a terrible experience to go through, but I can’t undo what’s been done. All I can do is put it behind me and move forward.”

A special thanks to the Innocence Project of New Orleans and The Innocence Project in New York for your tireless efforts in ensuring that justice was sought after and obtained for Mr. James and many others.

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