Who Helps the Exonerated Men of Texas?
James Waller, who was exonerated 24 years after he was convicted of a crime he didn't commit, started a non-profit to help support and counsel Texas' exonerees.
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A lot of men from Dallas County have been exonerated–27 at the latest count–and James Waller is one of the more memorable. He was convicted of the 1983 rape of a twelve-year-old boy—mostly on the word of the boy—and given thirty years for the crime. When DNA tests became available a few years later, he asked for one but didn’t get it. He kept asking, even after he was paroled in 1993, because he was considered a sex offender and couldn’t get a job or even go to parks when children were present. He finally got a test in 2001, but it was inconclusive. A second one in 2007 finally pardoned him, 24 years after he was sent away.
When TEXAS MONTHLY did a photo shoot of DNA exonerees back in 2008, Waller was one of the clear leaders. He had known a few of the men in prison, and he had gone out of his way to contact some of the others after they got out, knowing how hard it was to go from wrongly-convicted-man to free-man. He would even appear at hearings when a new exoneree was getting out, to talk with him, offer advice, let him know he could call him for help. Waller is tall and quietly charismatic and speaks in a deep, country accent. In a room full of men with hard-luck life stories, his stood out. For example, two days before that hearing to determine if he should get a second DNA test, his wife Doris, who was eight months pregnant, died in a car wreck.
Waller soldiered on, refusing to let his troubles destroy him or his spirit. In our interview in 2008, he memorably said, “God didn’t forget about me. That’s the main thing. There were times where I forgot about him, but he never forgot about me. And that’s why I’m still here. But I’m not gonna live in Texas no more. I already have my house up for sale. I’m going to move back to Louisiana.”
Two years later, he sold his house in Dallas and moved back to his hometown of Haynesville, a small town twenty miles northeast of Shreveport, near the Arkansas border. But he refused to leave behind the men whose cause he shared. He recently started a nonprofit called Exonerated Brothers of Texas, along with fellow exonerees Billy Smith (vice-president), James Giles (co-treasurer), Johnnie Lindsey (co-treasurer), and Thomas McGowan (secretary). The men had all become friends after they got out, getting together to talk about their challenges and struggles, sharing how they were coping with their families and their freedom.
Waller wants to harness this energy for the ones he knows will follow in their footsteps. “When I got out,” says Waller, who is 55, “there was no help, no support. Nobody listened. I was alone. I didn’t know any exonerees.”
That won’t happen anymore. Exonerated Brothers of Texas will focus on things like counseling, family services, and job and vocational training. Mostly, though, its goal is to let the exoneree know he’s not alone. “Our purpose is to be there when they walk out and then later for support and counseling—because they’re going to need some counseling. When you’ve been gone from society for a long time, things are different. We’re trying to help guys getting out and trying to help guys who don’t want to go back.”
In fact, Waller and nine other Texas exonerees were in a Dallas courtroom Wednesday when Richard Miles was exonerated after fourteen years. They all hugged their new comrade and welcomed him to the brotherhood.
Waller sees his long, hard journey as having a larger purpose. “We were exonerated for a reason, besides to just sit around and do nothing. We shouldn’t just sit back and not do something for somebody else. If I can help another person, I will: help people in prison, help people who get out. Help them connect to a person.”
Exonerated Brothers of Texas will launch a website next month and plans on holding a fundraiser in July in Dallas.