Exonerated inmate uses skill learned in prison to rebuild his life

Rebuilding a Life

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A man locked up 30 years for a crime he didn't commit is slowly trying to get back on his feet. Now, Henry James is using a skill learned during his darkest hours in rebuilding a life.

Over and over, the wood is smoothed while crafting a handmade masterpiece. The man behind the tools works like a seasoned pro. You could say Henry James sort of fell into wood working.

"When I first started I couldn't build a square box. I was persistent and I stayed with it," James said.

The New Orleanian didn't learn the trade from his father or a friend, he learned it in prison while serving a life sentence.

James explains, "This was my piece of mind here, in holding on, and to stay positive."

James was supposed to live and die behind prison walls, never again to see the light of day. He was convicted in 1981 of raping a neighbor and was sent to Angola. He says he was offered a plea deal before his trial: admit guilt and spend 25 years in prison. He wouldn't do it.

"I didn't do anything wrong, and my mother used to always tell me as a child coming up, stand up for what you believe in," James said.

At 20 years old, thrust into an environment that would break most men, James found a hobby, something that helped him stay sane.

He explains, "I had to stay positive, I had to keep my mind focused on what I wanted and what I believed in."

Over the years, he honed his skills, moving from building basic wooden benches to more intricate pieces. The work, often sold at the Angola rodeo, kept him busy and happy; a sort of refuge from the dog-eat-dog world he lived in.

One day, 30 years later, the surprise of a lifetime. A Jefferson Parish crime lab technician stumbled upon a lab sample from the case all those years before. Testing proved that James' DNA didn't match DNA found on the woman he'd been accused of raping. A judge vacated his conviction and on Oct. 21, 2011, Henry James walked out of prison a free man.

On that day back in 2011, James told FOX 8, "My feeling remained positive because I felt that somewhere down the line, the Lord was going to bless me and going to let me out."

Walking into a brand new world at the age of 50, felt foreign. But there was one thing he carried with him - his new-found skill.

"I'm at peace as you can see. I come here, when I get off of work, I come here if I feel like I want to do something with the time, I do," James said.

Tucked away behind his home, sits a small, run down shed.

"I go right in there, to myself, turn my little music on and I do what I do," James explained.

In his quiet place, away from the constant noise that was prison, James transforms pieces of old wood into works of art. James doesn't buy any of the wood he uses. Some of it he finds along the side of the road, other pieces are donated. What other people would consider trash, he finds beautiful.

"There's an old saying, what's one man's junk is the next man's treasure," he said.

Henry James certainly felt discarded, thrown away. But he found salvation, even in prison.

"I had a chance to be a bad guy, a messed up guy, but I'm striving through all this here, but I drove myself to the woodwork to get away from that," James said.
It was, he explains, the only bright spot in a very dark place. Nowadays, his pieces dot his New Orleans home, hanging next to the reminders of how far he's come. Henry sells his pieces to family and friends while he tries to save up for a shop. He wants it not only for himself, but to teach other young men his skill.

He explains, "I'm giving them something they're gonna take a long way in life, little tiny things they'll probably turn it into positive things."

Henry James knows life isn't perfect. Like the wood he works with, it's got imperfections and it certainly hasn't been smooth. But it's what you make of it that counts. And Henry chooses something beautiful.

James works a full time job  at a company that makes insulation. He hopes to one day sell enough pieces to support his woodworking hobby full time.

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