Local Politics

Former prisoner's case changed N.C.'s death penalty law

Posted November 17, 2009 3:02 p.m. EST
Updated November 17, 2009 6:50 p.m. EST

— Twenty-seven convicted murderers and rapists in North Carolina prisons were scheduled to be released last month due to a State Court of Appeals ruling.

The decision set off a firestorm with Gov. Bev Perdue, who has vowed to keep the inmates behind bars until legal issues involving their release are resolved.

Some of those inmates have a chance at freedom, thanks to James Tyrone Woodson.

"It was my case in 1976 that overturned the death penalty in the state of North Carolina," Woodson said.

Now 58, Woodson was convicted in 1974 of first-degree murder in connection with the death of a convenience store clerk who was shot during a store robbery. Woodson, who claimed that his life would have been threatened if he did not join three others in the robbery, stayed in the car as a lookout.

At the time of his trial, state law automatically allowed for the death penalty for a first-degree murder conviction.

Claiming the automatic death sentence violates the Eighth Amendment - which prohibits excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishments - Woodson appealed his case. Two years later, in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, struck down the law and spared Woodson's life and 120 other inmates.

Seventeen years after the ruling, Woodson was free. He admits adjusting to life outside of prison wasn't easy on him and his wife.

"I thought I was going home as a husband, but I actually went home as a son, because she had to help me readjust," he said.

WRAL News first met James Woodson 11 years ago when he was the kitchen manager at the Raleigh Rescue Mission. These days, he has a job in Raleigh and preaches to inmates at Wake Correctional Center.

He's also watching the latest court case involving the 27 inmates.

The lead plaintiff in the dispute, Bobby Bowden, is one of the inmates whose life was spared by the Supreme Court 1976 decision.

Now it's Bowden's case that might spare others.

"But for the governor not wanting these men released, I would like to know from her, 'Why?'" he said.

Woodson was in a work-release program prior to gaining his freedom in 1993. The concern about some of the 27 inmates is that they will be set free without being properly prepared. That angers and frightens some people.

"That's to be understood," Woodson said. "While I was in (prison), I met other men who are so evil that I said to them, 'They should never let you go. You don't want to change.’"

Since his release, Woodson has led a crime-free life.

"You have to want to change," he said. "Nobody can make you change."

He credits the change to God and to people in the prison system who have supported and believed in him.

"There's a choice in the matter in life itself," he said. "Do you want to live? Do you want to be helpful to another individual because you've been helped?"

"It was a good feeling (when I was released). I, James Tyrone Woodson, don't ever want to be in prison again," he said.