Tim Cole: A final honor for the wrongly convicted

08/23/2014 5:04 PM

08/23/2014 5:06 PM

Tim Cole can finally rest in peace.

Exactly 28 years after he was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, the Fort Worth man unjustly convicted of rape — who died in prison and was exonerated years later — will have a new legacy unveiled.

In Lubbock, the site of the crime Cole didn’t commit, a more than 10-foot-tall bronze statue in his image will be unveiled next month not far from the Texas Tech University Law School.

“When he left Lubbock, he left with his head bowed down in disbelief, feeling he had brought shame to his family even though he knew he was innocent,” said Cory Session, Cole’s younger brother. “Now he’s returning.

“And he will forever be there standing tall.”

On Sept. 17, Session will be joined for a dedication ceremony by family, friends and a bipartisan politically star-studded crowd including Gov. Rick Perry, state Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sens. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Dan Patrick, R-Houston.

They will honor Cole, the first person posthumously exonerated in Texas, with a statue they hope will send the message that there is no time limit on justice.

“This has been a long time coming,” Session said.

Cole’s family never stopped fighting to prove that the former Texas Tech student and Army veteran, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison, was wrongly accused and wrongly convicted.

One person who won’t be there is Cole’s mother, Ruby Cole Session, who lived to see the exoneration of her son but died last October.

“At my mom’s funeral, the parting song was A Change is Gonna Come,” Session said. “That was one of her favorite songs and we listened to it many times.

“I think the time for change is now.”

1985 crime

The family changed in 1985, when a Texas Tech student was sexually assaulted and Cole, a student there, was arrested and charged with the crime.

Family members didn’t believe Cole would be convicted of the crime, particularly because of a lack of evidence.

When he was convicted and sentenced, they felt as though the criminal justice system had let them down.

Thirteen years into his sentence, in 1999, Cole died in prison during an asthma attack.

Years after he was buried, the Innocence Project of Texas began looking into the case after Cole’s mother received a letter from another inmate who confessed to the crime.

The family spoke with attorneys, judges, reporters, lawmakers and state leaders. And they worked with the Innocence Project and others to conduct DNA testing to clear Cole’s name once and for all.

By 2009, a judge in Travis County ruled that DNA results cleared Cole of the sexual assault.

“This is the saddest case I’ve seen,” state District Judge Charles Baird said then. “I find that Timothy Cole’s reputation was wrongly injured, that his reputation must be restored, and that his good name must be vindicated.”

That year, the Texas Legislature approved the Tim Cole Act, to compensate wrongly convicted people, and created the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, which was designed to help reverse other wrongful imprisonments.

Seeking a pardon

But Cole’s family wanted more — a formal pardon for their loved one.

Perry said he didn’t know whether he had the authority to give a posthumous pardon and couldn’t do anything about it because the Legislature didn’t pass a bill specifically giving him that authority.

In January 2010, Abbott issued an opinion that gave Perry the constitutional authority to grant a posthumous pardon.

By March 2010, Perry was in Fort Worth, signing a pardon in front of Cole’s family.

“I know there is nothing anyone … in this world can do to change the past,” Perry told Ruby Session. “But we can state clearly … that your son was innocent of the crime of which he was convicted.”

Two years later, a state historical marker was erected in Mount Olivet Cemetery honoring Cole, noting that he was sent to prison and later cleared because of the work of the Innocence Project of Texas.

“Timothy Cole’s tragic story goes beyond just one man,” Van de Putte said. “This Army veteran’s story is about bravery, truth and faith in our nation. Cole was an innocent man, wrongly accused and convicted of a heinous crime.

“He rejected parole offers that would have required a false confession. Courage and principles like that deserve to be remembered forever. Justice must be blind. Timothy Cole’s story points the way to the just civilization America aspires to be.”

Last year, Davis sponsored a resolution honoring Ruby Session, calling her a “remarkable woman” who never gave up on clearing her son’s name.

The resolution said, “Her work on behalf of her son’s case is a poignant testament to a mother's refusal to give up hope.”

Moving forward

Years ago, Lubbock City Councilman Todd Klein suggested doing something to honor Cole.

Proposals ranged from a water fountain memorial to a bust and ultimately to the full statute of Cole — showing him as a college student wearing a sweater vest and penny loafers and carrying books — that will be erected along a slice of land renamed the Tim Cole Memorial Park in Lubbock.

It was “a tragic circumstance in which someone was wrongfully convicted, and they died in prison for a crime they didn’t commit,” Klein has told news organizations. “That should never have happened. … We need to give further awareness and pay tribute to Tim Cole’s life in memorializing his life.”

Internationally known sculptor Eddie Dixon of Lubbock crafted the statue, which was funded by Kevin Glasheen, a Lubbock attorney who has represented a number of wrongfully convicted people.

Cory Session said he hopes the statue of his brother will serve as a reminder to all who see it.

“We hope this is a testament to all people to not give up,” he said. “No matter what you are going through, don’t give up.”

After all, his brother, despite a wrongful conviction, never gave up on the legal system in Texas.

When his sister wanted to leave Texas Tech’s Law School because of his arrest, Tim Cole wrote to her, encouraging her to stay.

“I still believe in the justice system, even though it doesn’t believe in me,” he wrote.

Now, the statue in his image will stand tall, and his gaze will forever fall on the law school.

“I think it’s symbolic the way Tim is facing,” Session said. “I think it shows determination ... and the will to not give up.”

It is bittersweet, Session said, that his mother didn’t live long enough to see the event. But she did see his exoneration, as well as an early version of the statue about 1 1/2 years ago.

“The main thing is she was able to see her greatest prayer,” Session said. “She said, ‘God is going to keep me here long enough to see my son’s good name restored.’

“She saw that — and she saw a lot more.”

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