Justice Deferred


Dave Mann

Anyone who believes the criminal justice system in Texas is functioning properly should be locked in a room and forced to listen to Cory Session talk about his half-brother.

His name was Tim Cole. He was a Texas Tech University student falsely convicted in 1986 of rape. Tainted police lineup procedures led the victim to misidentify Cole as her attacker. He spent 13 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He didn’t live to see his name cleared. In 1999, Cole died in prison of complications from asthma.

On Oct. 13, some of the leading criminal justice experts in the state—including lawyers, judges, and policymakers—gathered for the first meeting of the Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. It was ostensibly an organizational meeting. But the first order of business was Session. Sitting next to other members of Cole’s family at a long conference table, Session described Cole as a college student trying to live the American dream. “This was my brother,” Session said through tears. “This was my mother’s son. He never met my children. He never married.”

Session suggested that flags on all state government buildings be lowered to half-staff on Dec. 2—the date Cole died in prison—to acknowledge everyone who’s been wrongly convicted.

“Tim died in prison while being oppressed,” Session said. “Let’s not let it happen again. … If it can happen to Tim, it can happen to anyone.”

Last year, after DNA testing proved his innocence, Cole became the first person exonerated posthumously in Texas. His story made national news and prodded the Legislature to enact two bills in Cole’s name (one increased compensation for the wrongly convicted; the other created the panel). The panel is to deliver recommendations to the Legislature in January 2011.

Much of the first meeting revolved around reforms that didn’t pass the Legislature this year, including a bill to fix police lineup procedures. Had the bill been law in 1985, it might have saved Tim Cole.

Many panelists agreed broadly on the causes of wrongful convictions. There isn’t much left to study on the topic, and some panelists argued the committee should focus its energy on a political strategy to pass the reforms.

“We don’t need to study it anymore,” said Barry Macha, the Wichita County district attorney and the panel’s representative from the Texas District & County Attorneys Association. “We know what the problems are. We know what the solutions are. We just need to pass it.”

Macha said DAs support many of the reform bills, including those addressing lineups, videotaped confessions, and better access to the courthouse for wrongly convicted prisoners.

Others at the table disagreed. Rep. Pete Gallego, the Alpine Democrat who chairs the criminal justice committee in the state House, said the compromise versions of the reform bills this past session were weak. “It’s easy to support weak stuff,” he said. Gallego argued that the panel should debate the details and make specific recommendations.

The open question is whether the inquiry named after Tim Cole can lead the way to reform. Or will it be another blue ribbon panel that produces another well-intended report that ends up in a drawer?