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Texas Tech to Award a Honorary Degree to a Wrongfully Convicted Student

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By Frederick H. Lowe

Texas Tech University’s Board of Regents has voted to award an honorary degree to Timothy Cole, a former business student who died in a Texas prison for the crime he didn’t commit.

Timothy Cole
Timothy Cole

School officials expelled Cole in 1985 after he was charged with raping Michele Mallin, another student. A jury in Lubbock, Texas, convicted Cole, 26, in 1986. The next day, a judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison, where he died during an asthma attack at the age of 39.

He never confessed to the crime and always maintained his innocence. He rejected plea deals that would have allowed him to leave prison early.


Indifferent police work make black men suffer

It wasn’t the police who realized they had sent an innocent man to prison, it was Jerry Wayne Johnson, Mallin’s rapist. Mallin said her rapist smoked throughout the sexual assault, but Cole suffered from asthma and did not smoke.

Johnson, who was in prison for two sexual assault convictions, wrote a letter in 1995 to Lubbock police and prosecutors confessing to the crime but the correspondence was ignored. Johnson wrote a second letter to a supervising judge in 1999, but that letter was also ignored.

He then wrote a letter to Cole’s mother, Ruby Session, and she took the letter to the Innocence Project of Texas. A DNA test tied Mallin’s rape to Johnson, not to Cole. Mallin, who previously said she was positive that Cole raped her, begin working with his family to clear his name.

In 2010, Texas Gov. Rick Perry pardoned Cole. A year earlier the Texas Legislature passed the Timothy Cole Act, which increased the compensation to $80,000 per year for each year in prison served by a wrongfully convicted person.

The actual perpetrator solves the crime, not the police

It is not unusual that Cole’s exoneration came through the confession of the actual perpetrator, not the dogged police work often depicted on television crime shows.

In the high-profile Central Park Jogger case, four black teenagers and one Hispanic teenager were sentenced to prison for attacking and raping Trisha Meili on April 10, 1989, in New York’s Central Park.

Cole statute
Timothy Cole statute

It was years later that Matias Reyes, a Puerto Rican male who had been a juvenile at the time of the attack, and who was a convicted serial rapist and murderer, confessed to raping Meili.  Reyes said he committed the sexual assault alone. DNA evidence proved he was telling the truth not the the police.


Lost life, lost degree and lost opportunity for Cole

“Through no fault of his own, Timothy Cole did not realize the joyous moment of graduation and experience the rewards of earning a college degree,” said Texas Tech President M. Duane Nellis, “In this bittersweet moment, we are proud to posthumously bestow his much deserved honorary degree in Law and Social Justice on Timothy and hope it lends to the long difficult healing process the Cole family has endured.”

Cole’s degree will be conferred May 15 at a ceremony at Texas Tech School of Law. Last year, Texas Tech unveiled a 13 foot-tall bronze statue on the school’s campus, honoring Cole. The state also constructed a historical marker next to his grave at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Fort Worth, Texas.

Cole’s ordeal is told in the book “A Plea for Justice: The Timothy Cole Story.”


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