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Texas injustice; The tragedy of Timothy Cole


Timothy Cole - victim of Texas injustice who died in prison following an erroneous conviction of rape
Timothy Cole


20.02.2009 Pravda http://english.pravda.ru


Within its borders arguably resides the most corrupt legal system in the United States, if not the world: at one time, to increase the prospect of winning convictions, “training” manuals were circulated in some prosecutors’ offices explaining how to exclude racial minorities from juries; one prosecutor who sent an innocent man to prison later joked about this injustice by boasting, “Anybody can convict a guilty man. It takes talent to convict an innocent one”; an African-American activist was sentenced to thirty years in prison for allegedly passing one marijuana “joint” to an undercover police officer; by contrast, a white, high-school football hero only received probation for killing a “punk rocker” by first striking him with his car, then backing over him; one single county has had more wrongful convictions than entire states; its legal “system” executed a man even though the United States Supreme Court had agreed to review his case; this “system” may also have executed two innocent men, Carlos DeLuna and Ruben Cantu; George W. Bush, while governor of this state, routinely denied thirty-day reprieves to death row inmates requesting DNA testing, even though such testing could potentially have exonerated them; during his murderous reign, this “pro-life” governor executed over one hundred and fifty people, then arrogantly bragged that no innocent person had been executed “under his watch.” This claim was an easy one to make since all evidence was routinely destroyed after an execution, making posthumous DNA testing impossible.

Still, even in the State of Texas, tyrants occasionally forget to cover their tracks, and such was the case when posthumous DNA testing recently exonerated Timothy Cole. In 1985, Cole was convicted of rape and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. At the age of thirty-nine, he died there—another victim of Texas injustice.

The tragedy of Timothy Cole’s case is a litany of everything that is wrong with Texas and America’s criminal justice “systems.”

Anybody familiar with the “day care molestation” hysterias of the 1980s, and the injustices it sired, are easily reminded that, more often than not, wrongful convictions occur whenever police and/or prosecutors are on a crusade, or, perhaps more accurately, a vendetta. In such cases, instead of following the scientific method—which dictates that objective analysis of the evidence should lead to a conclusion—investigators, far too often, simply assume that a crime has been committed and/or who the perpetrators are. This, in turn, often compels them to ignore, withhold or conceal evidence that contradicts their predetermined conclusions, and, in some cases, even causes them to fabricate or plant evidence to support these conclusions.

According to articles from CNN and The Associated Press [AP], this practice of ignoring contradictory evidence was present in Timothy Cole’s case. The victim had informed police that her attacker had smoked throughout much of her ordeal, something a person who suffered from severe asthma, as Cole did, would never have been able to do.

A second problem in the Cole case is the flawed methodology that was used (and in many places continues to be used) when dealing with eyewitness identifications. THE INNOCENCE PROJECT reports that many, if not most, wrongful convictions result from faulty eyewitness identifications—a problem that Iowa State University professor Gary Wells has spent years examining.

In 2001, I attended a seminar that included Wells as one of the guest speakers. He began by showing the audience a video reenactment of a crime. During the course of this video, audience members were able to get at least three good looks at the perpetrator.

After the video ended, Wells projected six photographs onto the screen, and asked the audience to identify the perpetrator. He also cautioned the audience that the perpetrator’s photo might not actually be in this line-up. Despite this warning, roughly eighty-nine percent of the audience identified one photograph as the man they saw in the video.

Wells then projected the photograph of the man who was actually in the video next to the one the majority of the audience had chosen. While there were some similarities between the two, this side-by-side comparison clearly established that the audience was looking at two different men.

Wells then explained that whenever the actual perpetrator is absent from a photographic line-up, and even when eyewitnesses are advised that this might be the case, people have a tendency to select the photograph that most closely resembles the perpetrator, simply because they convince themselves that the police would not be showing them the line-up unless they included a photograph of the actual perpetrator.

Wells further stated that erroneous eyewitness identifications are often validated by police officers, either through their body language or actual comments. In Timothy Cole’s case, for example, the victim stated that after she identified him as her attacker, the police reinforced her selection by describing Cole as “a violent criminal and a thug.”

A third issue in the Cole case is the penalty one pays for refusing to accept a plea-bargain, which outside of the legal arena would probably be labeled extortion.

Plea-bargaining occurs whenever prosecutors offer criminal defendants reduced charges and/or prearranged punishments in exchange for pleading guilty. Critics of this practice argue that it often treats the guilty too leniently, while supporters contend that the legal system would collapse if every criminal defendant demanded to be placed on trial.

The primary problem with plea-bargaining, however, is that innocent people, to avoid the prospect of spending years in prison, might feel compelled to admit to crimes they did not commit.

Attorneys, who have no illusions about the system, often call going to trial “rolling the dice” because the bias of the presiding judge, the evidence this judge admits or excludes, the race or gender of the victim and/or defendant, the predispositions of the jury, and the competency of the attorneys, or the lack thereof, can all serve to mask the truth.

Calvin Burdine learned this the hard way. After being convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, he appealed on the grounds that his defense attorney had occasionally dozed off during portions of the trial.

Commonsense would dictate that Burdine received “ineffective assistance of counsel.” After all, it does not require a stretch of the imagination to realize that any juror watching this slumbering lawyer would presume Burdine was guilty, since even his own attorney showed so little interest in defending him.

But this trial occurred in the execution-crazed state of Texas, and Texas justice decreed that Burdine’s conviction should stand, because he could not prove that his attorney had slept through any “relevant” testimony.

This was the system that Timothy Cole placed his faith it. Turning down a plea-bargain offer to plead guilty in exchange for probation, he chose to exercise his constitutional rights and go to trial. Unfortunately such a choice often makes vindictiveness the order of the day. Instead of probation, he was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.

But, just as there is an “innocence penalty” that can get you into prison, there is an “innocence penalty” that can prevent you from getting out. Timothy Cole remained in prison until his death because he refused to admit to a crime he did not commit.

This happened because, in most states, people cannot receive parole unless they are willing to “take responsibility” for their crimes, which means that the wrongfully convicted have to lie in order to become “honest citizens.” This is how the legal system, not unlike Pontius Pilate, endeavors to wash its hands of innocent blood and maintain its pretense of “infallibility.”

Many supporters of America’s criminal justice system will undoubtedly argue that while no humanly created system is perfect, Timothy Cole’s case is an aberration since most wrongfully convicted people are not only eventually released, but even receive financial compensation for their years of wrongful imprisonment.

But tell that to Richard Alexander. In 1998, Alexander was sentenced to seventy years for a series of sexual assaults that occurred in South Bend, Indiana.

After spending almost five years in jail and prison, Alexander was released after DNA evidence pointed to another perpetrator. He subsequently sued members of the police department and the City of South Bend to obtain financial compensation for his years of wrongful incarceration.

During the course of his lawsuit, details of the “investigation” that led to his conviction emerged: one victim had described her attacker as a “well-muscled” African-American man, so Alexander was placed in a line-up wearing a skintight T-shirt, while others in the same line-up wore loose fitting coveralls; DNA evidence excluded him in one of the attacks he was charged with, and three other attacks occurred while he was in custody; in one of those cases, the victim identified Alexander as her assailant, even though he was in jail awaiting trial when this attack occurred.

In 1997, a mixed-race jury failed to reach a verdict. So, a year later, prosecutors, taking a page from the Texas “training” manual, convicted Alexander with the aid of an all-white jury.

Still, despite all the machinations that led to this wrongful conviction, a federal magistrate dismissed Alexander’s lawsuit, claiming that Alexander had failed to prove he had been prosecuted “in bad faith.”

It doesn’t take a legal genius to recognize the absurdity of this “bad faith” standard. Apparently before wrongfully accused people can receive financial compensation they have to possess the psychic ability to read the minds of the very people working to convict them.

In fact, in Alexander’s case, many of the people who profited were the same people responsible for his wrongful conviction. The judge who sentenced him later accepted a lucrative position at a prestigious law firm, the Chief Prosecutor was appointed to an appeals court, and the Deputy Prosecutor who actually tried the two cases became Chief Judge of the Superior Court.

Tragically, this pattern of rewarding purveyors of injustice has been repeated, and continues to be repeated, throughout America’s criminal justice system. Many, if not most, prosecutors go on to become elected officials or judges, or find high paying positions in the private sector. Meanwhile those they wrongfully put away languish in prison, losing days they can never gain back. And even when an injustice is exposed, oftentimes the reactions of these former prosecutors are disdainful indifference or, as in the case of the recently released Joshua Kezer, a refusal to even concede a mistake may have been made.

In fact, any argument that the legal system does not reward unethical behavior should be forever silenced by the recent appointment of Roland Burris to the United States Senate.

According to an AP article, while Burris was serving as Attorney General of the State of Illinois during the 1990s, his assistant Mary Hayes expressed concerns about the conviction of Rolando Cruz, who was on death row for the murder of a ten-year-old girl. Yet, instead of listening to these concerns, Burris refused to see Hayes, compelling her to resign in protest.

In explaining her position, Hayes demonstrated that she, not Burris, truly understood the ethical duty of prosecutors: “It wasn’t our job to simply rubber-stamp every jury’s verdict. It was our job to analyze whether the trials had been fair, and I could not in good conscience argue that this had been a fair trial or that any of the mistakes that had been made were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Yet it was Burris, and not Hayes, who was elevated to the United States Senate.

Still, perhaps it is fitting that Burris was appointed by a disgraced, and now impeached, Illinois governor. Also, in what may be called “a case of karma,” it appears that Burris’s interpretation of “ethics” might be returning to haunt him. Questions about the way he obtained this Senate seat have recently arisen, prompting demands for investigations and calls for his resignation.

According to a CNN article, the current district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, Craig Watkins, is working on ways to reduce the potential for wrongful convictions. One proposal—inspired by the case of James Woodward, who was wrongfully imprisoned for twenty-seven years because prosecutors withheld evidence they were legally obligated to give to Woodward’s attorneys—is to criminally prosecute prosecutors who “knowingly hide or suppress evidence that could help a defendant.”

Predictably Watkins’s proposal has caused an uproar in a criminal justice system that rewards injustices perpetuated by those who serve it. Their principal argument is that nobody will want to be a prosecutor “because they’d be afraid an honest mistake could cost them their careers or even jail.”

But is this not a better alternative than the current situation where dishonest misconduct launches lucrative careers and sends innocent people to jail? In actuality all this proposed law will do is ensure that prosecutors err on the side of caution.

It must be remembered that nobody requires the assistance of a defense attorney until they have been criminally charged, or risk being criminally charged. Prosecutors are the gatekeepers, and their decisions can cost individuals thousands of dollars in legal fees, and cause them to lose their freedom and, in capital cases, their very lives. Is it too much to ask that laws be created to ensure that these gates are opened cautiously and responsibly?

But how effective would such laws really be? Perhaps the answer can be found in the aforementioned case of Rolando Cruz. He and a co-defendant were found to be innocent after it was discovered that police and prosecutors had engaged in perjury and other deliberate misconduct to obtain their convictions. These revelations resulted in the police and prosecutors being criminally charged themselves.

What was the result?

Well, for a preview, remember that this trial occurred in the Chicagoland area, where dishonesty and corruption have been a way of life for decades. The city that wants to host the 2016 Summer Olympics is the city where seven police officers were acquitted after participating in what many described as a “police riot” during the 1968 Democratic Convention; where a federal grand jury refused to indict the police officers who extrajudicially executed Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark during a “raid” in December of 1969; where county prosecutors have used every conceivable excuse to avoid prosecuting former police detective Jon Burge, even though officers under Burge’s command allegedly used torture to extract false confessions and send innocent men to prison; where, by contrast, these same prosecutors have used every conceivable excuse to harass Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr.; and where judges often accepted bribes to return “not guilty” verdicts in cases involving organized crime figures.

So it was not surprising when a “good-old-boy” Chicagoland jury not only acquitted the police officers and prosecutors who handled the Cruz case, they even celebrated with them afterwards.

There is a saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well the legal system in America is broken, perhaps irreparably so. But far too many people profit from the system the way it is, so they aren’t about to fix it.

Unfortunately this means there will be more injustices—like the tragedy of Timothy Cole.

David R. Hoffman, Legal Editor of Pravda.Ru


Update: Judge clears Tim Cole in rape conviction
current.com 10 Feb 2009

On Friday, a district judge in Travis County, Texas, rendered the decision "to a 100 percent moral, factual and legal certainty" that Timothy Cole did not commit the 1985 rape that sent him to prison, where he died ten years ago. "State District Judge Charlie Baird's announcement brought tears and exclamations of thanks from Cole's family. After court adjourned, Baird came down from the bench and embraced some of them"

"The worst conclusion anyone can draw from the Timothy Cole case is this shows the court system works," said Jeff Blackburn , an Amarillo lawyer who is the chief Innocence Project lawyer in the case. "This shows our court system does not work."

The Innocence Project of Texas, along with relatives of Tim Cole, urged the state legislature to pass a measure that would "standardize the way police conduct photographic lineups to eliminate any potential police bias."

Justice was served for Tim Cole, but this is only the start. We can't afford to rest until justice is served for everyone.


Hope Deferred:
Tim Cole's family gets DNA report proving what they always knew

By Elliott Blackburn | Avalanche-Journal June 30, 2008

Ruby told Tim all about the letter. A man named Jerry Wayne Johnson was promising to confess to the rape that kept her eldest son behind bars for 13 years.

There was a lot of work still to do, Ruby told her son. They'd have to prove Johnson's claims, somehow, and no one knew if that was possible. But there was hope enough for the 71-year-old woman.

Eight years had passed since prison dust and Tim's asthma killed him. For the first time since his death, his family really believed there was a chance to clear his name.

"When you have a child, there are commitments you make to them, promises," she said later. "And we try to keep every last one of them."

Her small frame paused as she pushed up from the ground next to Tim's headstone. Ruby's voice barely carried past her lips.

"It's going to be OK," she told her son.

The letter
Six years had passed since 2001, when a judge dismissed Johnson's attempted confession to the crime that imprisoned Tim. Only five had passed since legislators granted Texas prisoners access to post-conviction DNA testing.

Johnson tried again, from his cell near Snyder, to alert Tim Cole to his confession. He figured Tim would be

out of jail on parole now. Johnson's mother found an address for Ruby, and the prisoner wrote a letter addressed to Tim Cole on May 11, 2007.

"I have been trying to locate you since 1995 to tell you I wish to confess I did in fact commit the rape Lubbock wrongly convicted you of," Johnson wrote. "If this letter reaches you, please contact me by writing so that we can arrange to take the steps to get the process started. Whatever it takes, I will do it."

Tim's brother Rodney thought the letter was a sick joke when he first saw the envelope in the mailbox. Then he began reading and shouting for his mother.

"My husband left this earth with the same prayer that I've had all these years," Ruby said. "That one day, maybe somebody would own up to it. Now that's what this said in this boy's letter."

But the confession posed its own problems. Johnson's word was not enough to overturn a jury verdict; that required hard evidence, like a DNA test. No one knew if testable material existed from a 23-year-old case.

There was another problem. If the claim was true, then Lubbock was about to enter untested legal waters.

Lubbock County has performed half a dozen post-conviction DNA tests, District Attorney Matt Powell said. All were on living prisoners, and all confirmed the original verdict.

Experts are aware of no posthumous DNA exoneration in the state of Texas. State law offers no clear instructions as to how to handle such a problem. Because there was no one to free, the county was under no obligation do anything regarding the case.

From the stands of a Little League baseball game last spring, Powell promised to find the truth behind the letter. If there was a way to prove Johnson was lying or honest, the office would find an answer, he said.

"If one innocent person is put in the pen, that's a travesty of justice," Powell said.

The ecstatic family began contacting media outlets, including the Avalanche-Journal. Johnson learned Cole had died from the reports that followed.

"When I read in the report that Mr. cole had died in prison in 1999, I cried and felt double guilty, even though I know the systems at fault," Johnson wrote to a reporter two weeks later.

"A day later, I am still bothered, terribly, by the death revelation. Because, not knowing Mr. Cole at all, I wonder if the wrongful incarceration contributed to his death."

Tim is gone
Tim died Dec. 2, 1999, a grown man felled by a childhood disease.

Prison conditions took their toll on his asthma. He never managed more than three years without a trip to infirmary units or the Galveston hospital throughout his 13-year prison stay. Lifelong breathing problems his brothers thought Tim conquered by college killed him.

Ruby learned a day later, having missed the chaplain's calls the day Tim died. Kevin took the call for his mother, and immediately called Cory at work.

"All I could hear in the background was screaming," Cory said. "They just said, come home.'"

Reggie would hear the news from another prison chaplain. Struggling with drug and alcohol problems he hid from his older brother and guilt over Tim's arrest he concealed from his family, the middle child was nearing the end of a five-year drug sentence.

He remembered praying on the walk to the chaplain's office that his mother was all right. He sat down and saw Kevin's name on a sheet of paper on the chaplain's desk. So the news about Tim stunned him.

"That was the worst day of my life," Reggie said.

Tim's death dashed the little hope the family kept as the year 2000 approached. Feeling their appeals exhausted and resigned to wait for probation, Tim had faith that new technology allowing DNA testing would help prove he couldn't have raped a terrified Tech student in 1985.

In the end, there wasn't time. He went to the grave a rapist in the eyes of the state and whispering neighbors.

His death was a bitter reminder to Ruby of all the things he had missed in his life. He had no wife or children; death certificates and insurance paperwork came to her. She collected, too, his few possessions, including years of letters from his brothers and sister.

"I think about the Sunday I sent them to Lubbock," Ruby said. Tim's defense attorney wanted Tim and Reggie back a day before trial.

"That particular Sunday, I didn't, we didn't fix dinner," Ruby said. "We ate Kentucky Fried Chicken. And I regret that to this day. My child never sat down at the table and had another meal at this house. So many things, stuff like that."

The family's fight continues
Tim's family knew well by the summer of 2007 the speed of justice. They said, over and over, Johnson's letter was proof enough to them Tim had not committed the crime. But they knew they needed stronger proof to clear Tim's name for everyone else.

Lubbock's district attorney's office first pulled records to see if it was even possible that Johnson could have done the crime. George White, a detective on the original case and now administrator for the district attorney's office, helped with the investigation.

The Innocence Project of Texas, a non-profit firm of students and attorneys that work on wrongful conviction claims, interviewed Johnson and checked his background to rule out any connection to Tim's family.

Both groups warned the family and reporters that many inmates make unfounded claims. Both continued to follow the case.

DNA evidence has exonerated 33 inmates so far in Texas, more than any other state. The Dallas area has cleared 19 since 2001. Tim's family watched relieved and happy innocent men on the nightly news in Dallas, where most of the wrongful convictions have been overturned. Many of the cases hinged on the same problems alleged in Tim's case - faulty identification or forensics problems.

Months piled up without news. Updates from the district attorney's office trickled out. Johnson wrote that he'd stopped hearing from Innocence Project staff.

To have hope revived and then delayed again renewed two decades of frustration. The family worried Tim's case had stalled again.

"I know he's deceased," Cory said in February. "That's why it's just more and more important to us. Everybody wants to hear about someone who got out of prison and they're moving on with their lives. Well, we want to hear about someone who didn't deserve to go to prison."

The DNA test
Johnson met with the Avalanche-Journal a few weeks after his letter came to light.

He discussed his memory of the rape and of Tim in a deliberate, matter-of-fact tone. Johnson was critical of the attorneys appointed to handle his own appeals and DNA requests.

He has not explained why he committed the rapes. The girl, he said during an interview at the Price Daniel Unit last June, just happened to be the first to pull into that cold church parking lot in March 1985.

Johnson chuckled when asked what he was doing in the parking lot in the first place. He was working for a rental car company and on sick leave at the time of the attack. He lived and worked nowhere near campus.

"Why?" he asked from behind the thick blue bars of the Price Daniel visiting room. "C'mon, man. I just told you."

But Tim's death and the family's pain troubled him. He wanted to know his discussion of the crime with the media would help the family. He passed along apologies to Tim's mother and to the victim.

"I cryingly regret how I acted against you and I know this apology cannot and will not ever remove the misery and pain my actions caused you to suffer then and now," Johnson wrote about the student he raped. "I just hope and pray that my coming forward and admitting my guilt conveys that I'm truly sorry and seriously remorseful. I am. I wish you well."

The correspondence decried racism, faulty forensic practices in the 1980s and poor legal work he blamed for Tim's treatment and his own failed attempts to prove he was innocent in the rape of a 15-year-old student from 1985. He repeatedly criticized the crime lab work from the era, which he feels should be reviewed.

Johnson grew wary, too, of the investigation of his claims.

Innocence Project staff disappeared, he reported, frustrated. When Lubbock investigators visited him in Snyder to discuss taking DNA samples and see the letters he wrote confessing to the crime, he doubted the truth would come out.

"It was because of their strong interest in wanting the correspondence I possess dating back to 1995 that led me to think that the DA office may be more interested in finding to what extent the case will generate wrongful conviction publicity and what affect it would have on the Lubbock criminal justice system than the cause for the conviction," Johnson wrote.

But the Lubbock district attorney's office was investigating.

Lubbock investigators found evidence from Tim's case gathering dust in the county archives last fall. The Department of Public Safety's crime lab confirmed the material could be tested.

They took two samples, more than needed, from Johnson in April. In May, they quietly received the results of the DNA testing.

Johnson raped the Tech student.

That should never happen'
White and Judge Jim Bob Darnell, the prosecutor in the case, struggled to remember details of the Cole case 22 years after the trial. The case was tried using the best information and techniques available in 1986, both said.

The district attorney's office used today's best techniques available to finally settle the case, White said.

"When this other information came up, we worked hard on that and I hope finally got to the truth of the matter," White said. "Because that's what we was after all the time, was the truth."

When asked if he owed the family an apology, he said he had not yet thought enough about it.

"It's unfortunate the way it happened, but I can't answer that," White said. "You always hope you never get involved in something like this, but things happen."

"There's only one perfect system and one perfect individual," he added. "I don't think here on Earth we have it right yet."

Darnell, now a sitting district judge for more than a decade, did not know whether to apologize, either.

"I always had a great empathy for young women who were placed in that situation," Darnell said. "But on the other hand I feel really bad about what happened to Timothy Cole. That should never happen to anybody."

Cases so heavily based on eyewitness testimony became more rare since the 1970s and 1980s, he said. DNA evidence, though not always available, helped reduce but not eliminate chances of another wrongful conviction.

Darnell kept his faith in the justice system. He was at a loss, though, of what to say about Tim's case.

"There's not a whole lot you can say to the point of someone's life being taken, knowing that probably wouldn't have happened but for the fact that he was convicted," Darnell said.

Powell, Lubbock's current district attorney, was proud his office had determined the truth behind the rapes and frustrated he could not charge Johnson with the crime.

"He's not stupid," Powell said. "Everyone wants to paint him as a good guy, but he's far from it.

"If I could prosecute him, I guarantee that would happen. If I had any legal recourse against him he'd already be indicted."

He was less certain with what he could legally do for Tim Cole. His office had already done much more than the law required, he reminded a reporter repeatedly. Now he was leery of setting the precedent for an unprecedented legal problem.

"If the guy was alive, that would be easier," Powell said. "There's a process in place for that. But because he died, there's no legal process or remedy in place for that.

"We'll do what we can to clear the guy's name."

Texas Innocence Project attorney Jeff Blackburn requested on Friday a court of inquiry be held on Tim's case. The process would use a rarely tapped power allowing a Texas district judge to start an investigation into violation of state laws.

"If we're going to live in a society where the court system operates in a fair way, then it's got to do it across the board," Blackburn said. "They have a right to have a court of record tell them that their son was innocent."

The filing requires a district judge to recommend the hearing. If a Lubbock judge chooses not to, the law allows Blackburn to take the request to any other judge in the state.

"We will go to every single district judge until we find one that thinks something ought to be done here," Blackburn said. "I hope I just mean that rhetorically."

The news finally arrives
Tim's family learned the news confirming what they had long known on a Thursday morning in late June. They filled Ruby's southeast Fort Worth living room with friends and family members who could make the sudden trip to hear the results of the DNA test.

There was quiet relief at first; the satisfaction of knowing that finally, everyone would admit what the family knew about Tim.

But there was a bitterness to the news, too, and echoes of how the family struggled with Tim's death. With the truth out, memories of the trial and Lubbock media coverage of their son and brother, of the investigation that snared Tim, and of the way the case was presented in court bubbled back up.

The brothers faced, once again, all the opportunities Tim wanted for them and never had for himself. Ruby broke down thinking of his death in a jail cell, miles from his family.

They hoped, somehow, through a court of inquiry or through changes in state law, Texas could work to ensure no family ever went through what they suffered.

"The pain, the heartache and the sense of loss - all those things that we've experienced, we don't want for anyone else," Rodney said. "If his death accomplishes that, then his life was not in vain. That's basically our ultimate desire."

There have been signs of healing since Johnson's letter last spring. Rodney has returned to college. Reggie, having confronted what he believed caused his descent into alcohol and drug abuse, is nearing the end of a treatment program and optimistic about a future in Austin.

Ruby, still troubled by Tim's death and his conviction, found the peace and proof she wanted to see in her lifetime.

Reggie found the words for two decades of pain and guilt in a palm-sized brown Bible from the coffee table. He leaned back into the couch next to his mother.

"Hope deferred makes the heart sick," he read from Proverbs. "But when desire comes it is the tree of life. So now that my desire come, me, I can grow like a tree - my family, we can all grow as a tree."

See also
US juries get verdict wrong in one of six cases: study
Racism and slavery in the deep south

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