Tim Cole couldn't tell his own story and so his family recounted the saga to the hard-bitten Texas legislators last spring. The convict had insisted he was innocent right up to the day he died. He had refused parole because that would have required him to admit he was guilty of raping a fellow student at Texas Tech University. The ordeal was wrenching: Cole wept during the nights as he awaited a trial that would sentence him to 25 years in jail. Twice during his prison term he was found unconscious in his cell, the result of the asthma that had plagued him since childhood. The third time he suffered an attack, Dec. 2, 1999, he died from heart failure. Then, in 2007, another man confessed to the crime and Cole was declared innocent. The Texas lawmakers wept at the tale; and as a result, the state that has the reputation of being toughest on crime came up with one of the most generous and supportive programs to compensate those wrongfully convicted: the Tim Cole Act.Of course, the last thing on anybody's mind at the Texas Legislature was trying to "mitigate the state's hang 'em high image." If anything, legislators were worried that reform bills might damage their reputations as "tuff on crime." Time perhaps flatters its readers in the rest of the country that Texans in public office give a tinker's damn about their good opinion.
"I think Tim Cole's story moved a lot of people," says Lubbock attorney Kevin Glasheen, who represents 12 men exonerated after serving lengthy terms for rape. "As far as the politicians go, there are a lot of Republicans who do not like abusive government power." But the legislators from both parties did more than shed tears. Apart from the Tim Cole Act, they passed a second law this spring creating a well-funded office of expert appellate lawyers to represent death row inmates, a move to overcome the tales of sleepy defense attorneys and inept lawyering. The two new laws are now being implemented and their backers hope they will mitigate the state's hang 'em high image.
Still, its good to see these reform efforts getting national recognition. While Texas historically deserves its super-tough reputation, recent years have witnessed countervailing trends that fly in the face of that stereotype, even if Time magazine didn't notice until now.