Timothy Cole, separated from family, friends, and decent medical treatment for his asthma, lapsed into unconsciousness in his Texas prison cell and died on December 2, 1999. He had served 14 years of a life sentence for a rape he always maintained he did not commit.
Earlier this month, Cole was officially exonerated after DNA testing proved him innocent. It is unutterably sad that Cole, a college student with a promising future at the time of his arrest, did not live to see his complete vindication, especially after he turned down an offer of parole if he would just admit his guilt.
What is particularly disturbing about this wrongful conviction is that the actual perpetrator, Jerry Johnson, confessed to the crime as far back as 1995, four years before Cole's death. Johnson wrote to the court and asked for assistance in confessing to the crime. He also wrote to the district attorney who had prosecuted Cole. Johnson was ignored. Only after he penned a letter in 2007 to Cole, whom he did not know had died, did someone take Johnson seriously. Cole's family received the letter and started the process that exonerated Cole -- and conclusively fingered Johnson.
Even as far back as Cole's trial, though, there were red flags that called into question Cole's guilt. These included:
- The rapist was a chain smoker, whereas Cole was an asthmatic who did not smoke.
- Cole had an alibi: he was at his brother's apartment with several friends at the time of the crime. (These witnesses were branded liars by the prosecutor.)
- No physical evidence linked Cole to the rape.
- The evidence against Cole rested on the cross-racial identification testimony of the victim, who first identified Cole from a photo lineup consisting of a color Polaroid of Cole and five black-and-white photos of other men.
It is therefore not surprising that Johnson, who was a chain smoker and who was jailed for similar crimes in the same geographic area, should turn out to be the true rapist.
I would hope that the judge and prosecutor who received Johnson's confessions gave them serious consideration and had good reasons for not replying or initiating DNA testing on their own. I fear, however, that Johnson's letters were either filed or trashed without a second thought. In all likelihood, systemic reluctance to admit error resulted in Timothy Cole never again breathing free, and indeed never again breathing at all.