Friday, April 10, 2009
On April 7, a Texas District Court Judge recommended that the state clear Timothy Cole’s name, bringing his family’s two-decade struggle for justice near its end. Cole, who spent 13 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit and died of heart complications caused by asthma in 1999 while still serving his sentence, will be the first person in Texas history exonerated posthumously through DNA testing if Gov. Rick Perry or the state’s highest criminal court take action to make the judge’s ruling official. The case has also focused attention on the problem of wrongful convictions at a critical time in the Texas legislative session.
Cole, a 26-year-old Army veteran, was wrongfully convicted of raping a Texas Tech student in 1986. He always proclaimed his innocence, even passing over the possibility of parole when he refused to admit any involvement in the crime. Since his death, DNA testing has proven his innocence and confirmed the identity of the real perpetrator, Jerry Johnson, a Texas inmate. Johnson submitted a written confession in 1995 after the statute of limitations expired, but the evidence was ignored. Read the Innocence Project of Texas case summary here.
At an emotional hearing in February, Johnson confessed again—this time in front of a judge, Cole’s family and the rape victim. Johnson is currently serving 99 years in Texas prison for two other rapes. Michele Mallin, the victim whose eyewitness testimony helped convict Cole in 1986, testified in favor of Cole’s exoneration alongside his mother, Ruby Sessions, and other family members. State District Court Judge Charles Baird recommended that Cole’s record should be cleared, and at the April hearing Baird issued the official ruling. It will take action from either Texas Governor Rick Perry, or the state’s highest criminal court for the exoneration to become official. Innocence Project of Texas attorneys represent Cole’s family and Michele Mallin, and the Innocence Project serves as co-counsel.
Cole’s family is also taking a stand to help prevent future injustice. Family members recently spoke before the Texas Legislature in support of criminal justice reform bills that would improve eyewitness identification procedures in the state, increase compensation for exonerees, and create an innocence commission. State Senator Rodney Ellis, the Innocence Project Board Chairman, introduced the reform bills. Texas leads the nation in the number of convictions later overturned by DNA testing with 36 exonerations, including 29 that involved eyewitness misidentification.