“The worst thing you can be is a sex offender because it’s dirt that you can’t wash off.”
Those words were spoken by James Waller in an interview with WUNC at the Innocence Network Conference in Charlotte in April. Waller spent decades in prison and on parole after being wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy. When he went to jail, he was 23. When he was exonerated in 2007, he was 50.
“Once I got into prison, I had to let all the anger go,” Waller said. “Because I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to work on my case. And being angry wasn’t going to do me any good.”
Waller’s conviction was based almost entirely on the word of the victim, a 12-year-old boy who misidentified Waller as a rapist. In 1982 the boy was raped in his home, and when questioned by police, the victim initially described the offender as about 5 feet 8 inches tall and 150 pounds. Waller was 6 feet 4 and much heavier. At the time of the crime, he was in his own apartment asleep beside his girlfriend, a claim that both she and Waller’s roommate confirmed. Despite their claims and the victim’s initial description, Waller was convicted of the crime and served ten years in prison before being let out on parole.
But Waller was not satisfied with parole. He wanted to be cleared of his sex offender status, and he saved up money for a DNA test. When the Innocence Project took on his case, they helped Waller prove his innocence with his DNA results, which did not match the DNA associated with the perpetrator. He was exonerated in 2007.
“It was like the whole world was lifted off of your shoulders,” Waller said of that moment. “You’ve been carrying this around for so long. And now, it’s all gone.”
Waller has gone on to write and talk about his experiences. One of his essays was included in the book How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth, which contains essays from Barack Obama and George W. Bush. He is currently the president of the Exonerated Brothers of Texas, a non-profit organization that offers housing, educational and vocational training, counseling and other services to exonerees.