USA Today reports:
LUBBOCK, Tex. – A statue depicting someone who spent 13 years in prison accused of rape may seem an odd memorial.
But the new bronze statue of Tim Cole — 13 feet high and peering across 19th Street toward Texas Tech University campus — is a tribute not just to a man wrongly accused of a crime who stood by his principles but to an imperfect criminal justice system.
On Wednesday, state officials, including Gov. Rick Perry, gathered on the busy corner of 19th Street and University Avenue for the statue’s unveiling. Cole was a Texas Tech student in 1985 when he was wrongly accused of raping another student and sentenced to 25 years in prison, where he later died. After lawyers had his case overturned, Perry awarded Cole the state’s first ever posthumous pardon.
“This statue will serve as a reminder that justice must be tempered with wisdom,” Perry said before a crowd that included members of Cole’s family and other exonerees. “And we must all stand vigilante against injustice, wherever it may be found.”
Cole’s case led to a string of criminal justice reforms, including the Tim Cole Act, which awards exonerated inmates $80,000 for each year they were behind bars, among other annuities – the most generous exoneree compensation package in the USA.
The case highlights the fact that Texas, despite its tough-on-crime reputation and nation-leading number of executions, is also a trailblazer in exonerations and criminal justice reform. Since 1989, Texas has exonerated 147 inmates, behind only California and New York, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University School of Law that tracks the releases.
In the wake of the Cole case, Texas lawmakers also mandated uniform eyewitness identification policies for every law enforcement agency in the state and improved DNA collection techniques.
“There are certain aspects of Texas’ criminal justice reform that’s surprisingly ahead of the rest of the country,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, a New York-based group that helps wrongly-convicted prisoners prove their innocence and advocates for reform. “Sometimes you just can’t trust government to get it right.”
In 1985, Texas Tech student Michelle Mallin was raped at knifepoint near campus, one of a string of similar incidents that occurred near the university. She picked out Cole’s picture from a police lineup of other photos. (As a policy, USA TODAY doesn’t typically name rape victims. But Mallin has been speaking publicly about the incident, including for this article.)
But that photo lineup later proved to be faulty and made Cole’s picture stand out unfairly, said Jeff Blackburn, founder and chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, which took on the case. Cole was given a choice: admit his guilt and get a lesser punishment or face prison time. Cole refused to admit to a crime he didn’t commit and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. In 1999, Cole died in prison of a heart attack brought on by his asthma.
“It became clear early on that Tim Cole was a very powerful symbol of what had gone wrong with the Texas criminal justice system,” Blackburn said.
In 2006, the Innocence Project received a letter from an inmate claiming he was the actual rapist in the Mallin case. But even armed with the new evidence, Blackburn said he couldn’t get Lubbock County courts to reopen the case. So he used a little-known, 19th century provision in the Texas constitution, known as the “Court of Inquiry,” that allows judges to hear cases outside their jurisdiction. In 2009, he took the case to Austin, where, after hearing the evidence, District Court Judge Charles Baird awarded Cole an exoneration. A year later, Perry pardoned him.
“It was very, very sad that Tim Cole had died in prison,” said Baird, now in private practice in Austin. “I thought it would be a tragedy and a travesty of justice if we didn’t let everyone know he didn’t belong there.”
The idea to bring a statue to Lubbock commemorating Cole came from Kevin Glasheen,a Lubbock attorney who helped represent the family and pushed to get many of the reforms passed. Glasheen said he was struck by how the family never demanded compensation, insisting instead on lasting changes to help other wrongfully-accused inmates. His firm commissioned and paid for the $250,000 statue.
“It’s a way for our community to honor Tim Cole’s family,” he said. “And as a community for us to say we’re sorry for what happened and we’re never going to forget.”
Now, Cole’s statue will remind the people of Lubbock each day. Etched on one shoe is “1985,” the year he was arrested. On the other: “1999,” the year he died. Directly under them: “And Justice For All.”
After Wednesday’s unveiling, Cole’s relatives gathered around the foot of the statue. Some clasped hands with the governor who pardoned him. Others dabbed reddening eyes with Kleenexes. Then, they quietly sang We Shall Overcome as they stared up at the towering figure.
(Photo/Video Source: YouTube)