Perry signs pardon to fulfill Fort Worth family's quest for justice

AUSTIN -- Gov. Rick Perry granted a posthumous pardon Monday to wrongfully convicted inmate Tim Cole of Fort Worth, completing his family's relentless 25-year campaign to clear Cole's name.

"I'm so happy," Cole's mother, 73-year-old Ruby Session, said after Perry called to notify her that he had signed the clemency papers. "I knew it would come. I just didn't know when."

"We're having a lot of rain today, and I say those are tears of joy," she added.

Cole, who died in prison in 1999 while serving a 25-year sentence, was exonerated by a Travis County judge in 2009 after DNA testing cleared him of the 1985 sexual assault of a Texas Tech student. Another man, Jerry Wayne Johnson, had sent a letter to Cole's mother confessing to the crime.

"I have been looking forward to the day I could tell Tim Cole's mother that her son's name has been cleared for a crime he did not commit," Perry said in a statement announcing his action. "The state of Texas cannot give back the time he spent in prison away from his loved ones, but today I was finally able to tell her we have cleared his name, and hope this brings a measure of peace to his family."

Battling from the start

Cole's mother, five brothers and a sister had battled to seek justice for Cole from the day he was picked out of a photo lineup a quarter-century ago. That quest later evolved into a broader campaign as family members took the lead in legislative efforts to help other wrongfully convicted inmates. The Tim Cole Panel on Wrongful Convictions began work last year after it was created by the 2009 Legislature.

"To say the wheels of justice turn slow was an understatement when it came to Tim," said one of Cole's brothers, Cory Session of Fort Worth, who is now policy director for the Innocence Project of Texas.

Perry signed the pardon on the eve of today's political primaries. Perry, a Republican seeking re-election to an unprecedented third four-year term, faces a challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Wharton businesswoman Debra Medina. Seven Democrats, led by former Houston Mayor Bill White, are seeking their party's nomination for governor.

Perry had publicly supported the family's efforts to clear Cole but questions about the governor's constitutional authority to grant posthumous pardons raised the possibility that he might not have the power to do so.

However, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion in January saying Perry had authorization to grant the request. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles approved the family's clemency petition late last week, forwarding its recommendation to Perry over the weekend.

Cole was in prison for aggravated sexual assault when he died from an asthma attack Dec. 2, 1999. DNA testing later proved that he was innocent.

Additionally, Matthew Powell, the Lubbock County criminal district attorney, and Lubbock Police Chief Dale Holton had written letters in support of a posthumous pardon. The victim also supported the effort.

State District Judge Charles Baird of Austin exonerated Cole in February 2009, saying the inmate had "suffered the greatest miscarriage of justice imaginable in our criminal justice system." Johnson, who had received two consecutive life sentences for other sexual assaults, took the stand at the exoneration hearing to acknowledge responsibility for the attack.

"I am responsible for all this. I'm truly sorry for my pathetic behavior and selfishness, and I hope and pray you will forgive me," Johnson said.

Work is unfinished

During the 2009 Legislature, Cole's prom night picture was posted at legislative committee hearings as relatives traveled repeatedly to Austin on behalf of bills designed to correct flaws in the state's criminal justice system. Even amid her euphoria over the pardon announcement, Ruby Session said there is still much to do.

"We will be doing this work as long as I'm able," said Session, who is scheduled to undergo surgery this week for an arterial aneurysm. "We're on the forefront of a new day in the criminal justice system."