On November 22, 1981, Henry James spent much of the day helping a friend repair his car in Westwego, Louisiana. Later that day, James and his friend drove the car, but got into an accident and James’s friend was arrested.
About 8 p.m. that night, James went to the home of his friend and told his friend’s wife what had happened. Then he went home.
At 6 a.m. the following morning, November 23, 1981, the friend’s wife was awakened by a man who came in the back door and drew a knife. The man raped the woman in her bedroom and fled.
Police were summoned and the victim told police that she did not know who attacked her and gave a brief description of her attacker.
On November 24, 1981, a police officer patrolling the neighborhood saw James, who roughly fit the description given by the woman. The officer told the detective who was working on the case. The victim, who was white, ultimately selected a photograph of James, who was black, as her attacker after looking through a book of about 75 photographs of black men.
James, 20, was arrested on November 25, 1981 and was put into a line up and the victim identified him again.
At trial, the victim identified James. The prosecution also called a physician to testify that the victim had had intercourse within a few hours of his examination. What the jury did not hear was that serology testing from the rape kit had excluded James as the attacker. The prosecution had turned the laboratory report over to James’s defense attorney, but the attorney never introduced them in court.
James testified, describing his day with the victim’s husband and said that he was asleep in the morning until he was awakened by his stepfather and then went to work. His stepfather testified that he woke James, another witness testified that he saw James walking to work and gave him a ride and James’s boss testified that James was at work at 6:48 a.m.
James was convicted on April 15, 1982, and on May 7, 1982, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
He lost his appeals and ultimately reached out to the New York-based Innocence Project in 2005 to try to get DNA testing performed. Jefferson County crime lab personnel searched for evidence in the case, but were unable to find anything.
On May 3, 2010, Milton Dureau, who worked in the lab, was looking for evidence in a different case when he happened upon a slide from James’s case. He remembered the case number from his earlier search for evidence. The slide was sent out for DNA testing and on September 26, 2011, the tests excluded James as the rapist.
On October 20, 2011, 24th Judicial District Judge Henry Sullivan vacated James’s conviction and the charges were dismissed. That night, James was put into solitary confinement to ensure his safety and the following morning, October 21, 2011, James was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. In 2012, James was awarded $250,000 in state compensation.
– Maurice Possley