Legal Racism: The System Kills Another Black Man

CNN reports on an important hearing in Austin, Texas, one that sought the

Creative Commons License photo credit: Biggunben

first posthumous exoneration of a wrongly convicted man in Texas history: a black Texas Tech student named Timothy Cole. Cole died in prison a decade ago after serving a long term for a rape, it has now been proven by DNA and other evidence, he did not commit. Numerous black Texans have been released in recent years because they were wrongfully convicted by the criminal injustice system.

His family successfuly sought to clear Timothy Cole’s name. Today they won that exoneration. Here is today’s report on the judge’s decision:

State District Judge Charlie Baird closed an extraordinary hearing today by finding that Timothy Cole, who died in prison in 1999, did not rape fellow Texas Tech student Michele Mallin in 1985. “I find to a 100 percent moral, factual and legal certainty that Timothy Cole did not sexually assault Michele Murray Mallin.” Baird, who took the case after a Lubbock case denied a joint request by Malin and Cole’s family to consider it, further stated that Timothy Cole’s reputation was wrongly injured, that his reputation must be restored and that his good name must be vindicated.”

CNN reports the very troubling story of likely institutional racism thus:

Cole was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for the 1985 rape of 20-year-old Michele Mallin. He maintained his innocence, but it was not confirmed by DNA until years after his 1999 death, when another inmate confessed to the rape.

Mallin was a young student when raped and, to her great credit, once she found out the truth, has joined Cole’s family in this unprecedented exoneration effort, assisted by the Innocence Project of Texas, which has helped in several wrongful conviction cases. The actual rapist has confessed and is also expected to testify at the hearing. The Innocence Project has raised serious questions about the role of the criminal justice system is this wrongful conviction. CNN continues:

The next day, police investigators showed Mallin pictures of possible suspects. She chose a picture of Cole and said he was her attacker. She later identified him in a physical lineup, according to the Innocence Project of Texas…. But there was one detail: Mallin told police her attacker was a smoker. “He was smoking the entire time.” And Cole, who suffered from severe asthma, “was never a smoker,” Session [Cole’s Brother] said. “He took daily medications (for asthma) when he was younger.” “He was the sacrificial lamb. To them, my brother was the Tech rapist, there was no backtracking. It was the trial of the decade for Lubbock.”

The Austin American-Statesmen legal blog has a piece by Steven Kreytak that adds this point about witness misidentification and numerous exonerations in the Texas criminal justice system:

Cole’s case is not isolated. About 80 percent of the Texas cases where people were exonerated by DNA testing since 1994 involved some kind of witness misidentification, according to the Innocence Project of Texas. Gary Wells, an Iowa State University professor who is a leading authority on witness identification has written that their accuracy is frequently imperfect and often depends on the methods employed to obtain the identifications.

The Innocence Project became involved and DNA tests showed that Cole was not the rapist. But this should have been obvious to the police and prosecutor in Lubbock. Cole could not have been the smoking rapist, yet for some reason this very white criminal justice system could not see that reality. Do white officials often “see black” in many such cases? What role did the white racist framing of young “black man as rapist” play in this event? The conviction of course ruined Cole’s life, for he was a student at Texas Tech. CNN continues thus:

But his dreams of getting married and having children never materialized. He was arrested and charged with Mallin’s rape, declining a plea bargain offer that would have put him on probation. A jury convicted him and imposed a 25-year sentence. That night, “he hugged my mother, and he said, ‘Mother, why these people lie on me? Why they do this to me?’

He died in prison of heart complications linked to his bad asthma. Because of this wrongful conviction, he was “murdered” in effect by the criminal justice system, one of many black men in US history.

Indeed, the number of men of color who have been exonerated in recent years shows just how unjust our criminal justice system really is. In recent years there have been many exonerations of people in prison for felonies. The Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School reports that their 232 exoneration cases reveal that well over half (138) have been African Americans (my thanks to Kim Cook for these data links). For just death row exonerations (wrongful capital convictions) from DNA evidence and other evidence, 130 death row inmates have been exonerated: 50 are white, 66 African American, 12 Latino, 2 other (Native American and Asian). All but one are male. In these cases Some 16 were exonerated by means of DNA evidence. Well over half (62 percent) were men of color.

So much for the nonsense about a “post-racial America.”