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Texas City Unveils Statue Of Innocent Man Who Died In Prison

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yesterday, the city of Lubbock, Texas, acknowledged a terrible wrong that sent an innocent man to prison for a crime he did not commit. A statue was unveiled of Timothy Cole, the man whose untimely death in prison led to a posthumous pardon and important changes to the Texas criminal justice system. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT: With a thunderhead looming on the horizon, Lubbock citizens, some dressed in their Sunday best, crowded into a pocket park to pay homage to the statue of the man who's come to be seen as a sort of martyr for Texas justice. Cory Session is Tim Cole's brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CORY SESSION: The arc justice is long, but for our family, it bends toward Lubbock.

(APPLAUSE)

BURNETT: Exactly 28 years ago Wednesday, Cole, an African-American army vet and a student at Texas Tech University, was convicted of raping a white university student at knifepoint. She testified the rapist smoked, but Tim Cole was asthmatic. He never smoked. Nevertheless, the jury believed her, and Cole got 25 years in prison. Cory Session remembers the night his family received the news.

SESSION: I heard this chanting going on. It was my mother walking up and down the hallway, saying, why did they do this to my son? You know he didn't do it.

BURNETT: In his 14th year of incarceration, Tim Cole died of an asthma attack at the age of 38. He always maintained his innocence and refused to admit guilt, even when it meant passing up a chance at parole.

After the statute of limitations expired on the aggravated rape, another Texas inmate, Jerry Wayne Johnson, admitted that he, not Cole, was the assailant. DNA evidence confirmed it. Johnson was already doing life for a series of other rapes.

Ruby Cole Session of fought doggedly to have her son's name cleared. After that, she implored the government of Texas to change the laws. Governor Rick Perry, who pardoned Cole posthumously in 2010, told the crowd at the statue dedication that lawmakers heeded her plea for reform.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: We also came together and worked to enact measures to help ensure that something like this would never happen again.

BURNETT: Texas passed an act that compensates people who were wrongly convicted by the state $80,000 for every year of false imprisonment. Then it set up the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel that brought about another law that reforms police procedures for eyewitness identification. This was one of the mistakes that led to Cole's conviction.

In the past decade, Texas has exonerated well over 30 prisoners who were falsely accused. Jeff Blackburn is chief counsel to the Innocence Project of Texas, which did groundbreaking work in the Cole case. He says, Wednesday's ceremony, which attracted prominent politicians, a testament to the sea change in attitudes in the state.

JEFF BLACKBURN: And if we had said, hey, we want to do a monument to a guy that the state screwed up on and killed in prison -can you come up and hear it? - I don't think we would've had any takers 10 years ago.

BURNETT: Twenty-four years ago in Texas politics, candidates slugging it out for the Democratic nomination for governor bragged about who could execute more death-row inmates. As Blackburn says, times have changed. Yesterday, the states leading gubernatorial candidates trekked to Lubbock to remember injustice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECHES)

GREG ABBOTT: Tim Cole's statue will forever be a reminder that we must always pursue justice, no matter how long it takes.

SENATOR WENDY DAVIS: And I believe we have a responsibility to make sure that Tim Cole's life serves as an educating moment because it gives us the power to change things.

BURNETT: That was Attorney General Greg Abbott and Senator Wendy Davis, who are both running for Texas governor. The bronze statue of Timothy Cole is in a little city park only four blocks from the original crime scene. His face gazes north towards the Texas Tech Law School across the street. One local official said, the statue is a permanent reminder that the law is fallible, but the truth must win the day. John Burnett, NPR News, Lubbock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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