According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 3,337 exonerations since 1989 accounting for more than 29,500 years lost. In our quest for justice, how do we work to eliminate wrongful convictions? What has history taught us? What role has forensic DNA played since its emergence? In this video series we delve into the role of DNA testing in the United States in post-conviction work to exonerate the innocent and reassert convictions of the guilty.
In this episode, our experts explore what we’ve learned as a field through post-conviction work and how we can continue to improve. John Collins and Mike Ware touch on the degree of campaigning and the number of elements that need to fall into place for a conviction to be overturned.
John also discusses the importance of maintaining integrity for all involved in post-conviction work, both on the part of innocence advocates and the investigative team. Further, he explores research that has been done suggesting that jurisdictions that are more punitive in nature experience a higher error rate due to the motivation to get a conviction and encourages all to focus on the integrity of the investigation and trial to ensure it’s fair and the evidence is presented in an honest, responsible, and professional manner.
Tiffany Roy and Peter Valentin discuss the human component to investigations and provide examples as to how errors could inadvertently occur. Tiffany also mentions a forthcoming report from the NIST Expert Working Group on Human Factors in Forensic DNA Interpretation, linked below.
We conclude our series by exploring the case of Tim Cole, who was an Army veteran majoring in political science at Texas Tech and was “doing everything right.” Tragically, Tim died in a Texas prison from an asthma attack while serving a 25-year sentence for a crime that he didn’t commit.
On March 24, 1985, a Texas Tech student was parking her car across from her dormitory when a black man approached her, threatened her with a knife, drove her to another location in her car and sexually assaulted her.
Police believed at the time that the attacker might have been an unknown serial rapist known at the time as the “Tech Rapist” who was suspected in four other attacks. Several officers began conducting surveillance around campus. Composite sketches based on the descriptions of the victims appeared in the Texas Tech campus newspaper. On the night of the assault, Tim was studying at home, where his brother was hosting a party attended by five other individuals.
Two weeks later, Tim visited a friend at a local restaurant. As he was leaving the restaurant, Tim spoke with a female detective in plainclothes who thought he resembled the composite sketch of the rapist. The following day, a detective went to Tim’s apartment and took a Polaroid photo of him.
Detectives then showed the assault survivor a photo lineup including six color photographs. Tim’s was the only Polaroid, while the other five were standard mugshots. Tim was looking at the camera in his photo while the subjects in the five mug shots were facing to the side. According to police, the assault survivor was immediately sure that Tim was her attacker, saying: “That’s him.”
The next day, the police conducted an in-person lineup with Tim and four prisoners. The survivor again identified Tim. One of the survivors of a similar assault, as well as two other women who had filed police reports about a black man acting suspiciously on campus also viewed the lineup but did not identify Tim. Based on the recent sexual assault survivor’s identification, Tim was arrested and charged with the aggravated sexual assault. Tim was never charged with committing any other assaults, but he was charged with a separate attempted kidnapping of another woman. That charge was later dismissed.
In addition to the testimony of the assault survivor, a forensic examiner from the Texas Department of Public Safety testified that seminal fluid was present in the rape kit and testing found evidence the secretor had Type A blood, which was Tim’s blood type. The analyst also testified that pubic hairs collected from the rape kit had similar characteristics to Tim’s pubic hair but said the analyst conducting the tests could not reach a firm conclusion.
Tim’s attorney attempted to enter evidence that similar attacks had continued to occur in the months after his arrest, but the judge refused to allow most mentions of the uncharged crimes before the jury. His attorneys also attempted to present evidence that a very similar attack had occurred one month before the assault for which Tim was charged, and that fingerprints from the victim’s car in that case did not match Tim’s fingerprints. The judge also did not allow this evidence before the jury.
After six hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Tim. The next day, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Tim’s initial appeals were denied. In 1995, after the statute of limitations on the 1985 sexual assault had expired, a Texas prisoner named Jerry Wayne Johnson wrote to judges and the trial prosecutor in Lubbock County as well as Tim’s defense lawyer, saying that he had committed the sexual assault. Johnson was serving a life plus 99-year sentence after convictions for two sexual assaults with similar characteristics to the attack for which Tim had been convicted.
Johnson’s letters were not acknowledged. Tim died in prison in 1999 without ever learning that Johnson was attempting to confess to the crime. The year after Tim died, Johnson wrote again to a supervising judge. This time, the case was moved to a different judge and rejected without comment.
Eventually, in May 2007, Johnson’s most recent confession letter reached the Innocence Project of Texas and Tim’s family. Attorneys at IPTX sought posthumous DNA testing in the case and Lubbock prosecutors cooperated. DNA testing conducted on semen from the crime scene excluded Tim and implicated Johnson as the perpetrator. During a hearing in February 2009, Johnson again confessed to the crime before a judge, Tim’s family and the victim.
The presiding judge officially exonerated Tim in a ruling issued on April 7, 2009. Governor Rick Perry pardoned Tim on March 1, 2010.
Soon after, the state of Texas passed the Timothy Cole Act, increasing compensation paid to exonerees to $80,000 per year served, expanding services offered to the exonerated after their release and adding compensation for the family of an exoneree if cleared after death. The state also created the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions in 2009 to study the prevention of wrongful convictions across the state.
In 2014, a 13-foot bronze statue of Tim was dedicated in Lubbock, depicting a young Tim Cole looking toward the Texas Tech University Law School. In March 2015, Texas Tech University System regents voted to posthumously award Tim an honorary degree in law and social justice.