Thursday, September 18, 2014

So We Can Remember To Be Perfect From Now On

Tim Cole was 39 when he died from asthma-related heart issues in 1999.  He's buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Fort Worth, which is where he's from.  But it's not where he died, and it's not where the story began. 

It began in 1985.  In Lubbock, hard by the campus of Texas Tech University.  That's where and when Michele Mallin, 20 years old, a student at Tech, was taken at knife point and raped.  

Tim was 25.  He'd served a hitch in the army.  Now, he was following his sister's footsteps, going to Tech as she had.  He was working on a degree.  His life ahead of him.

Michele Mallin picked Tim Cole out of a photo lineup, identified him.  That man, she said.  He's the one who raped me.  

No, no, no.  You're mistaken.  He said.

The jury sided with Michele.  On September 17, 1986, 28 years ago yesterday, Tim Cole was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison.  Several times he was offered parole.  All he had to do was admit that he'd raped Mallin.  He wouldn't do that, couldn't do that.  Because, he said, said again and again, he hadn't raped her.

For 13 years, Tim sat in Texas prisons.  Insisting on his innocence.  In December, 1999, at the age of 39, he died.

In 2007, after the statute of limitations on Mallin's rape had run, a guy named Jerry Johnson, who was doing life for rape, sent Tim a letter.  Sent it to his home in Forth Worth, because really, that's where you'd expect him to be, out on parole and all.  Except of course Tim was dead.  Had been for 8 years. Still, it was a hell of a letter.  I raped Michele Mallin, Johnson said.  I'll take a DNA test to prove it was me and not you. 

Too late for Tim, of course, but still.

Ruby Cole Session, Tim's mother, took that letter to prosecutors and legislators.  And as prosecutors and legislators typically do when someone gives them a letter like that, they blew her off.  But she was nothing if not persistent.  She kept at it.  The Texas Innocence project happened to be based at the Texas Tech law school.  It took on the case.  

In 2009, a decade after he died in prison where he'd spent 13 years for a crime he didn't commit, Tim was exonerated.  The legislature passed and the governor signed the Tim
Cole Act granting compensation to the wrongfully convicted.  The next year, Governor Rick Perry (yes, that Governor Rick Perry) granted Tim a full pardon.  They put up an historical marker about Tim in the Mt. Olivet Cemetary.  It's the first in the nation about a wrongful conviction.

And in Lubbock yesterday, 28 years to the day after he was convicted, on the corner of the Tech campus in what's now the Tim Cole Memorial Park (or something like that), they unveiled the Tim Cole Memorial.

Some 400 people attended the ceremony honoring Tim.  They got to listen to politicians and preachers.  They heard from Rick Perry and from Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott who are campaigning against each other to succeed him.  They heard from the candidates for Lt. Governor, Dan Patrick (who voted against the Tim Cole Act) and Letitia Van de Putte.  A number of exonerees were there and stood up to be applauded as if having been wrongly convicted was something for which they deserved praise. 

One might be forgiven for thinking there was more than a bit of posturing, of politicking going on while everyone got to deny that there was anything political about it.  Indeed, Perry said there was nothing political about the ceremony.  So did Jeff Blackburn who founded the Texas Innocence Project.

Of course, they were both lying.  

But here's the thing.  Tim Cole was, in fact, a quite extraordinary man.  From his prison cell he encouraged his siblings in their college classes, helped set them toward their careers.  He convinced his sister to stay the course at the Tech law school.  He gave thousands of dollars to charity, money he got from the GI Bill.  He wrote, in a letter from prison,
I still believe in the justice system, even if the justice system doesn't believe in me.
It was Constitution Day, and Tim's brother, Cory, reminded the crowd.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice
Tim's mother wasn't there.  She died last year.  But Michele Mallin was.  She'd joined in the effort to clear Tim's name.  She'd developed a relationship with his family.  Tim's mother had told her
You're a victim, just like my son was.
Jim Bob Darnell was there, too.  Jim Bob (hey, it's Texas; that's how he's known) was acting DA when Tim was prosecuted.  He actually tried the case.  These days, he's a judge.

The memorial itself is a 13-foot bronze sculpture of Tim.  He's standing, facing toward the Tech law school several blocks away.  He's holding two books.  On the spine of one, it says, 
Lest We Forget.
At the base of the sculpture, in large bold lettering, it says
And Justice For All.
When it was over, news reports say that family and friends (and maybe the politicians, but the reports I've seen don't say) sang "We Shall Overcome."  As if all it takes is will to ensure that no innocent person is again convicted of a crim.

Tim Cole died in prison.  An innocent man.  Statues won't change that.  

He's not the only one.  He's just one we happen to know about.  Who lets a lot of people pat themselves on the back and vow that we'll do better in the future.  Because you know, we can prevent wrongful convictions if we're just more careful.  

It really is a fine sculpture.  

And a noble enough fantasy.  

Disclosure: I was a student at Tech law school when Michele Mallin was raped, a student when Tim Cole was convicted and sent to prison for what turned out to be the rest of his life.   I'd like to say I remember something about the case, recall having questions about it.  I can't.  I have a vague recollection of there having been a vicious rape of a student near the campus.  I wouldn't swear it was that rape.  I wouldn't swear the memory is even true.


  1. Well said my friend and important to report on. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I hope you don't mind, but I posted a link to this on my Facebook page.

  2. Feel free to link whenever you like, Vicki.