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Exoneration of Dead Man in Texas May Prompt Judicial Reforms

Lawmakers in Texas are proposing changes in criminal investigation procedures aimed at eliminating false identification of crime suspects. This follows last Friday's exoneration of a man who died in prison for a crime the court determined he did not commit. It was the first posthumous exoneration in Texas and only the second such case using DNA evidence in the United States.

Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston has introduced criminal justice reform bills that would prevent police from improperly influencing witness choices in lineups of suspects.

The proposals may get a boost in the senate chamber from an unusual court hearing that wrapped up Friday in Austin with a judge declaring the innocence of Timothy Cole, who died in prison nine years ago while serving time for a rape in Lubbock, Texas that he said he did not commit.

His mother, Ruby Sessions, told the court Timothy Cole rejected a lighter sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. She repeated his words to the court.

"I ain't [am not] pleading guilty to something I did not do."

Sessions says she will stay in Austin to press lawmakers to pass the reforms that could, in her view, prevent other innocent people from being sent to prison.

Also taking the stand Friday was the man who admitted to the rape for which Cole was sent to prison and whose guilt was confirmed by DNA evidence, Jerry Wayne Johnson.

"It was always on my mind and in my heart to care about Tim and to care about and help people no matter what," he said.

But Johnson, who is now serving what amounts to a life sentence in prison for two other rapes, waited until the statute of limitations had expired before admitting to the rape of college student Michele Mallin in 1985, even though he knew Timothy Cole had been sent to prison for 25 years for that crime.

Johnson claims he tried to convince Lubbock authorities that he was the real perpetrator of the crime and that Cole should go free, but that he was ignored.

For the first time since the rape occurred, the victim, Michele Mallin, was able to face Johnson in court. She berated him for allowing an innocent man to die in prison for a crime he committed.

"No man, no person, deserves what that young man got," said Mallin.

Mallin had been the main witness against Cole, but she says she was manipulated by Lubbock police, who withheld evidence that would have proven Cole's innocence. She joined with Cole's family in asking for his exoneration and took advantage of the opportunity to chastise the man who she says devastated her more than two decades ago.

"I am just angry and I just wanted to say that to you. I just hope you live out your last miserable day in prison and just suffer the rest of your life," she said.

Tim Cole's family was assisted in the effort to clear his name by The Innocence Project of Texas, a non-profit group that uses DNA tests and other means in an effort to overturn wrongful convictions. Spokesmen for the group say 88 percent of the police departments in Texas lack clear eyewitness identification policies and that faulty eyewitness testimony was a factor in 82 percent of the cases in the state where prisoners have been set free by DNA tests that showed they were innocent.