Monday, February 9, 2009

An Irreversible Loss

My trip to Austin, to work with the Innocence Project of Texas and a UTA (University of Texas at Arlington) professor and interns, along with several men who have been exonerated of crimes for which they have previously been incarcerated, coincided with a historic event.

Timothy Cole, convicted in Lubbock, Texas of being the 'Tech Rapist', was exonerated of his crime in a Travis County courtroom during my visit. Michele Malin, the fifth victim had picked him out of a photo line-up and Cole was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Timothy Cole was 26 years old at the time of his conviction. His family, who fought long and hard to win his release from prison was present and celebrated Timothy's victory. Timothy Cole wasn't there. He died in prison, in December, 1999, after serving 13 years of his sentence due to complications caused of his asthmatic condition.

His is the first posthumous exoneration in the history of Texas.

On my way back from Austin, I talked with an official from the City of Dallas about the prospect of getting official city support for the legislation we proposed to legislators on Thursday and Friday. While explaining all of the reasons why it wasn't politically prudent to support such legislation during these tough economic times, the subject of Cole's case came up. "His family", she said, "gets none of the benefits we're talking about. You need to narrow your scope and maybe fight for survivors benefits."

I have no doubt that this was said with a great deal of sympathy and compassion. As a matter of fact, when I mention to virtually anyone the cases of these men and the predicaments they face, everyone expresses sympathy. But sympathy for the family of Timothy Cole misses the entire point: he was an innocent man, wrongly convicted who DIED in prison! That's not unfortunate - that's just plain wrong.

And it goes to my point about the rest of these men. It's not that the mistake of the incarceration hasn't been corrected. It is the compounded injustice of releasing them with no immediate means of support, no access to health care (no, they shouldn't have to wait in line with everyone else at county hospitals), no employment or employable skills, not even I.D. to access social services (like food stamps). In fact, not only do they not have an immediate pardon from the governor's office, their record is not automatically expunged. Many of these men have been unable to get work (and they all want to work), or maintain employment, because their conviction still turns up on background checks. They have no housing (they're not paroled, so there are no halfway houses for them). There are no counseling services immediately available for their situation (many suffer post traumatic stress syndrome).

I actually do understand the position of the city. To officially support legislation increasing compensation for these men, not only puts a politician in the position of supporting an increase in the state's budget. It is also to admit that the legal system has committed a gross error, and that there is official culpability. Something, along the lines of what Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has done every time one of these men goes free...

But there are times when some things have to be done because they are unalterably right. D.A. Watkins, subjects himself and his political career to increased scrutiny because of his commitment to justice on this issue. I marvel at officials who talk about the political volatility of this issue.

Timothy Cole's family doesn't want 'survivor's benefits'. No amount of money can make up for their loss. In fact, I've met the family and talked with his brothers. They are well educated, very intelligent family men who have great futures ahead of them. They will do fine. I've met Timothy Cole's mother, a tower of quiet strength and faith who wants her son back, not a check.

In fact, they only want three things: they want they're loved one back; they want nothing like this to happen to anyone else and they want those who suffer the fate of wrongful incarceration to receive more justice than they received when they were convicted and imprisoned.

Only the first one is impossible. The other two take the type of political courage which appears to be in short supply.