Timothy Cole died on December 2, 1999 as the result of an asthma attack while he was serving a 25-year sentence for a crime he did not commit. Cole was convicted in 1984 for the rape of a 24-year-old Texas Tech student and was arrested after being identified by the victim from an array of photos.
Claiming his innocence, Cole exhausted his appeals, and then in 1995 after the statute of limitations had expired a Texas inmate named Jerry Wayne Johnson wrote to Lubbock County law enforcement confessing to the crime. Because Johnson’s letters were repeatedly ignored, Cole passed away in 1999 without knowing that Johnson had attempted to admit to the crime. Eventually, a letter reached the Innocence Project of Texas and Cole’s family, leading to his posthumous exoneration.
However, Cole’s death was not in vain. It led to the Texas Legislature passing the Timothy Cole Act which increased exoneree pay to $80,000 per year served, providing compensation to families of deceased exonerees, and offering post-release services. Another result of the botched case was the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission.
The commission, which officially dissolved on December 1st, issued recommendations for the legislative session. Tasked with examining cases of wrongfully convicted Texas inmates, their recommendations are aimed at ensuring the state sees a steady decline in wrongful convictions.
The first committee recommendation was for the use of electronic recording during interrogations.
Currently, there is no state law requiring that interrogations be video or audio recorded, so local law enforcement entities adopt their own practices. Without objective knowledge of what goes on in the interrogation room, it is impossible to know if procedures were followed, or even how an alleged confession came about. Many defendants, guilty and otherwise, claim that they are coerced during interrogations to admit to a crime they didn’t commit. Recording interrogations would not only protect suspects, but it would ensure that confessions are held up in court.
The next recommendation pertains to false accusation and informant regulations.
The committee wants jailhouse informants’ criminal history to be admissible in court, including any charges that were dismissed or reduced because of a plea bargain. Having this information allows judges and jurors to more accurately determine how much credence they want to give to jailhouse informant testimony. It also lets them determine if the testimony would have come regardless of a plea bargain given to the witness. A prime example of this was the Houston case of Linda Carty, a woman sentenced to death row for kidnapping and murder. One of her accomplices wrote in a sworn affidavit, “[the prosecutors] told me I had to testify at Linda’s trial and they made it clear what it was I had to say.” Unfortunately, this information was only made public years after her conviction during the appeal process.
The committee also hopes the legislature tackles faulty eyewitness identification.
The Innocence Project calls eyewitness misidentification, “the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions…playing a role in more than 70% of conviction overturned through DNA testing nationwide.”
The committee wants law enforcement to be trained on proper eyewitness identification procedures and to adopt the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute Model Policy. This policy requires recording of witness and victim testimony, lineups and photo arrays done sequentially rather than all at once, and “blind” photo arrays, or use administrators who have no knowledge of the case or the suspects.
And, lastly, the committee wants better forensic science practices.
Harris County came under fire last year for the use of high-error, low-cost roadside drug tests. The errors led to 298 wrongful drug convictions, and that is exactly what this recommendation aims to target.
They want defined policies for the use of these tests as well as requiring all crime labs to test all substances in drug-related cases, regardless of the drug field test result.
The recommendations would have a drastic impact in ensuring that a defendant found guilty is actually guilty. Each of these issues targeted for reform has led to wrongful convictions in the past and the legislature should do whatever is in its power to make sure it doesn’t happen again.