Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Texas House, Senate will honor memory of DNA exoneree

The sad and terrible case of Timothy Cole - Texas' first posthumous DNA exoneration - continues to garner attention as we approach the court of inquiry hearing on Thursday and Friday which will finally, formally, exonerate him. Tim Cole was a military veteran and student at Texas Tech when he was convicted of rape based on a victim's mistaken identification. He later died of asthma in prison before DNA evidence ultimately cleared his name.

After the Austin Statesman ran a moving front-page article on the story yesterday, today there's national coverage in USA Today previewing the court hearing ("Texas family fights for man's posthumous exoneration," Feb. 4):
On Thursday, Cole's family and lawyers will appear in an Austin courtroom in pursuit of an extraordinary posthumous legal ruling to clear his name. The strategy is unprecedented in Texas and rare in the U.S., say advocates for the wrongfully convicted, who fear others also have died before they could prove their innocence.
Meanwhile, the Statesman followed up its story with an editorial today titled, "Even in death, Cole deserves justice." Opined the paper:

Texas has an unenviable track record of convicting defendants who later were proved to be innocent. From the lamentable false drug charges brought against African Americans in Tulia to the conviction of Anthony Robinson, exonerated and pardoned after DNA testing proved he did not commit the sexual assault that sent him to prison for 10 years.

According to the Innocence Project, 35 former Texas inmates have been exonerated by DNA testing since 1994. Many of those former inmates were convicted on eyewitness testimony, as was Cole.

Cole's accuser said she believed investigators had other evidence again him beyond her eyewitness identification. She now says it was a shoddy investigation and that Cole never should have been convicted. That's why she has joined his family and the Innocence Project in pressing for a hearing Thursday on Cole's conviction.

If Cole were alive, there would be no question that he would get a hearing. But even in death, he deserves justice.

There'll be a lot more attention paid to this case for the rest of the week. With Cole's family in town today to prepare for the court of inquiry, Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth) in the House of Representatives and Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) in the Texas Senate have proposed resolutions for consideration this morning that "pay special tribute" to Tim Cole and expressing "profound sympathy" for what happened. (See a copy here.)

While I'd not presume that any of this will bring "closure" for Cole's family - especially for his mother, Ruby Cole Sesssion, I'm sure that's not really possible - I do hope these proceedings provide them the vindication they've sought for so long, and that Cole's case will inspire lawmakers and the courts to change the way the justice system does business to prevent many more such tragedies.

UPDATE: I had the privilege of spending the morning at the capitol with Tim Cole's family while these resolutions were passed in the House and Senate, accompanying them in my capacity with the Innocence Project of Texas. In the House, at the family's request, I actually went out with them on the dais to hear the resolution read. It was a pretty moving, emotional experience - for them and for me.

In both chambers, nearly all the members present came up afterward to shake hands and express their condolences, including quite a few who genuinely surprised me with their concern over the case. Some hugged Cole's mother, Ruby Cole Session, like she was family. His brothers told me afterward they found the whole thing overwhelming, that they hadn't expected the ardent and sincere reaction they got from Texas legislators. (I was actually pretty proud of our legislators for that.)

The Tim Cole case is an American tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions. If the real rapist hadn't begun writing letters to the DA and the family insisting he'd committed the crime, there's little doubt the truth would never have come to light. The eyewitness ID procedures that caused Cole to be accused were terribly corrupted, and police ignored evidence that pointed to another perpetrator. Those things are also true in many other Texas DNA exonerations, but the fact that Cole never lived to see freedom again makes his story especially poignant.

I was honored and humbled to join Tim Cole's family today; I can promise you it's an experience I'll cherish and won't soon forget.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the story Grits. Words fail. Prayers to his family.

Anonymous said...

It is a real pleasure to see such good come from efforts to correct past injustices. I hope the legislators were sincere in their expression of sympathy and concern.

Every single time the justice system admits an error it brings hope to so many. Real improvements are being made to avoid wrongful convictions in the future thanks to a tremendous amount of hard work done every day.

Anonymous said...

So these bastards are sorry they let an innocent person die in prison and hugging his family make it all better? Fuck that.

These lawmakers are the problem and you let them off easy, Scott. They all need to be poked up the butt and shown what real life is like. Every judge, prosecutor and legislator should have to spend three days in jail as a prerequisite to taking office. Then they should have to sit and listen to the families of the wrongfully convicted.

Anonymous said...

I read the comment before it was removed. I'd just like to say to the poster that it really does serve us as a society to remember that everyone has the capacity to admit when they have been wrong and change as a result. Even legislators. At least, that's the kind of country I would like to live in. Praise to the family for their generousity of spirit to accept the sentiments displayed yesterday.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Just to avoid confusion, I reconsidered and added it back, but deleted the last line, which was unnecessary anyway and distracted from the writer's point.

Please do keep it family friendly, though, folks. You can express angry sentiments constructively and it's more helpful for everybody all around.

Anonymous said...

Awesome story Grits. May Gd comfort the family.


wommon4justice said...

Seems a little like an exercise in futility--admitting error only after the man has been executed. I sincerely hope there was some comfort for his family. They deserve it.

Now about all the other innocent people in prison--whether on death row or anywhere else--when will we find something to do for them? In time. Before they have served lengthy sentences. And before they have been put to death.

Once more, my own primary cause: the case of Elsa Newman #921975 at Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. Not everyone in prison is there because they committed a crime. Newman is there because of a crime committed by someone else, and the "someone else" admitted to it. If I've found a few of these people, I dare to venture that there are thousands of them.

God help and protect us all from a "justice" system that is so unjust.

Anonymous said...

The Federal and State systems of justice are broken. Hugs aren't going to even it out.
I think there need to be real punishment for prosecutors, judges and police who convict innocent people for crimes they didn't commit. These are smart people. They know what they are doing. They just know they are untouchable for doing it and their victims have zero recourse.

Anonymous said...

Thirty five wrongful convictions out of how many thousands? I'm honestly shocked at that very low rate of error. I know, I know, even one is too many. Get real. Thats ridiculous in practice and it makes you sound looney as those MADD witches.

Anonymous said...

In east TX they drag a black man behind a truck. Out here in west TX they drag a black man through kangaroo courts.

It is interesting that I got a jury summons today for that very court that sent Timothy Cole to his death cell.

I don't see the note that the real rapist waited for the statue of limitations to pass and then confessed seven years ago, writing a letter to Jim Bob and others- back when Timothy was alive.

I teach at TTU, the scene of the crime. I teach black students who talk to me about being stopped on campus for "walking while black". They all agree that there's a price and a posture to take as a black student out here.

The raped woman remembered one thing about the brutal bastard who did this to her- he was a black chain smoker. Heck, they got half the description right.

I'm trying to weigh the notion that if I end up as a potential juror in Judge Jim Bob's court whether I'll show him some "Air Iraqi" shoe missiles or if I'll just stand and ask the questions that he refuses to answer to the press in OUR court room.

I will say it here- from EVERYTHING I read Jim Bob Darnell was a DA who didn't do his job and convicted an innocent man and then, when confronted with a a confession by a man who was a chain smoking black man who was already in jail for raping two other women did nothing to rectify his misdeed.

That's what I see, that's what I hear, that's what it seems. If Judge Darnell wants to come out from under the robe and explain his role in this then maybe I'll see it some other way.

An innocent, broken man died in a cell alone from suffocation from asthma. We know that. His only crime seems to be that he was a black man on an overwhelmingly white campus after a black man committed a crime there. A guilty man confessed to the crime to the man who did the prosecuting.

I just don't understand. I just don't understand this place. I just had a conversation with two young african american students on Tuesday who frankly talked to me about the difficulties they've had on this campus with the local law.

It just doesn't seem time has made things different- DNA testing or not. A black man sees a different law here than a white man does.

Anonymous said...

One more thing-
You folks out there in the real Texas, not here in Lubbock or up in Tulia had better start making your voices known. This is a different place than where you live and the things you stand for and wish for in your society have not been won out here up on the caprock or down in the piney woods in the east.
Your Texas is only as good as the Texas we have here too. You can ignore these places in the appropriations but the terrible sense of race and closed society are tarnishing your badges of justice too.

Texas doesn't end at Round Rock or Coppell or the Woodlands.

This Texas out here was settled post war by immigrants from the Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama cotton belt. They aren't Willie Nelson here, they're Frank Lubbock, former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Look it up.

Maybe these transplanted deep south dudes never got their civil right messages because they left in the decades before the freedom riders and SNC came in and forced them to treat a black man like more than 3/5 a man.

Anonymous said...

Charles Kiker here:

Thirty five wrongful convictions out of how many thousands, Mills? Is your point that the Innocence project is making a mountain out of a mole hill? Or just what is your point?

How many wrongful convictions have there been in recent years? Well, there were more than thirty five in Tulia. And how many are still in jail? And how many have been executed?

This is not about statistics anyway. this is about peoples' lives.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Mills, if you want to discuss the rate of error, you're looking at the wrong post. Here's a discussion of overall error rates. Read it then tell me if you think those rates are low.

Anonymous said...

This is why, Ladies and Gentlemen, that capital punishment must be eliminated in our society.

The judges and jurors and prosecutors and police get it wrong sometimes.

Victims want vengeance. It's human nature. But the State must not be in that business.

And you can not bring the dead back to life. Ain't possible.

darjay said...

Readers of this thoughtful blog will be interested in the book by Paul Craig Roberts, The Tyranny of Good Intentions:How Prosecutors and Law Enforcement Are Trampling the Constitution In the Name of Justice. Available in paperback.

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