Now that DNA evidence has posthumously exonerated [Timothy] Cole, he is the first wrongfully convicted man in Texas to have his good name restored to surviving family. Even the victim who mistakenly identified Cole participated in rewinding the hands of justice.
I came to Austin to witness legal history and also to beg lawmakers to work with us in making our state a national model of justice, instead of the nation's image of injustice.
That's why Cole's story must not be an ending. It is a new beginning as the Innocence Project of Texas seeks more partners to redefine Texas justice. ...
In Austin, we presented a humble case for justice, one I hope lawmakers will not ignore. Our proposed innocence legislation includes:Improving eyewitness identification procedures
Recording police interrogations
Better screening and corroboration for informant testimony
Improved access to post-conviction appeals based on discredited forensic science
Improved compensation and expansion to include posthumous exonerations
Currently, the state compensation is $50,000 for every year of wrongful incarceration. But exonerees must be eligible and pardoned by the governor to even apply. The money can then be taken in a lump sum payment, which is exactly what Wiley Fountain did. Today, he is exonerated and homeless.
Because compensation is taxed at nearly 40 percent, coupled with legal fees and living expenses the men have, $50,000 dwindles rapidly. Never mind what a life is worth and the real value of a dollar in today's economy.
Firsthand exonerees have hell finding jobs and finding their place in a faster-paced, higher-tech world than the one they knew 10, 15, 25 years earlier. No one will lease them apartments or hire them because it takes an eternity to expunge records. There are a myriad of state services to help convicted felons, including job training, health benefits and housing assistance. Exonerees are not entitled to these services because they are innocent. What an insult.
Long after overdue justice is delivered and smiling defendants with their proud attorneys exit courtrooms, exonerated men face multiple hurdles to avoid the fate that befall Wiley Fountain.
My job as an justice-loving volunteer is to ensure that exonerees have the tools and skills to become productive members of society. If they are to do better, Texas must do better.
MORE: See additional discussion of the Timothy Cole case from The Texas Observer.