MU Basketball Legend Looks for Hope During Harsh Prison Sentence


Skip Henderson playing basketball with the Marshall team during his academic career.

Johnathan Edwards, Student Reporter

One of the premier stars of Marshall University basketball in the 1980s has spent the last three decades in and out of the Georgia prison and jail systems, leading some of the player’s former connections in the Huntington area to launch a new movement to seek out his freedom. 

James Woodrow “Skip” Henderson Jr. led Marshall basketball in points per game in each of his four seasons with the Herd in addition to leading the team in steals in his final three seasons. 

In the early 1990s, Henderson started down a bad road and began to tailspin. Fueled by the use of alcohol and drugs, he took his first dive into criminal activity. Two separate arrests between 1991 and 1992 – with convictions of burglary, robbery and forgery – sidelined Henderson’s professional aspirations. 

These first two strikes on Henderson’s record put the aspiring court general in sight of the law, but the crushing blow came on Sept. 24, 2001, when Henderson was arrested for a third time. In a drug-fueled tirade following what Henderson blamed on the recent death of his wife, Henderson hijacked a car at gunpoint and kidnapped the driver long enough to rob a nearby convenience store. After conviction, Henderson was put in jail, and he wouldn’t be leaving this time. 

“The only person Skip ever harmed was himself,” former teammate and mentor Robert Epps said. “People in other states have killed multiple people and gotten out in a shorter time than Skip.”

Henderson, who at that point was close to graduating from Marshall, dropped out two months before he walked the stage. His original hopes of being taken early in the NBA draft faded away as he went undrafted. Henderson signed onto a minor league team only to be kicked off due to drug problems. The promising star, despite his shining potential, is currently serving life without parole in Smith Prison in Georgia, a maximum-security facility. Due to Georgia laws at the time of Henderson’s third apprehension, he received life without parole. According to state law, if an individual is arrested and found guilty of crimes three separate times, the person will receive a life sentence. 

During Homecoming weekend, fliers advertised the saying “Free Skip Henderson,” and a petition circulated around campus that students at Marshall and residents of the Huntington area could sign. Research led to the discovery that the campaign was being run by Huntington native Shelly Ridgeway from the greater Washington D.C. area in tandem with West Virginia lawyer Tim Dipiero. Both have ties to Henderson and have been working to find a way for him, now 57 years old, to be released after serving 21 consecutive years for generally nonviolent crimes.  

Being a beloved student-athlete in the 80s who is now in Georgia’s Smith Prison, which is known as one of the most dangerous prisons in the country, Henderson has tried to use his limited resources to get the word out.  He has used a petition, fliers and budding media interest to make sure his college community knows of his intentions. In a passionate letter to the Marshall and Huntington community with the full text attached as a side bar, Henderson says, “From day one, the Herd community made me feel like family.” 

After nearly 30 combined years in jail and prison, Henderson feels as if he’s learned his lesson. 

“If I do get the chance to be free again, I just want the life I have left to be prosperous,”  Henderson said in his letter.

Dipiero will be at the Memorial Student Center Wednesday morning, Nov. 16, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. with another chance for students to sign the petition in an effort to help out Skip Henderson.