- Sexual Assault
- 25 Years
Tim Cole died in prison in 1999 while serving a 25-year sentence for a sexual assault he didn’t commit. Nearly a decade later, DNA evidence from the crime posthumously exonerated Tim and implicated another man as the perpetrator.
On March 24, 1985, a Texas Tech student was parking her car across from her dormitory when a black man approached her, threatened her with a knife, drove her to another location in her car and sexually assaulted her.
Police believed at the time that the attacker might have been an unknown serial rapist known at the time as the “Tech Rapist” who was suspected in four other attacks. Several officers began conducting surveillance around campus. Composite sketches based on the descriptions from the victims appeared in the Texas Tech campus newspaper.
Tim Cole was a 24-year-old Army veteran majoring in political science at Texas Tech at the time. On the night of the assault, Tim had studied at home, where his brother was hosting a party attended by five other individuals.
Arrest & Trial
Two weeks later, Tim visited a friend at a local restaurant. As he was leaving the restaurant, Tim spoke with a female detective in plainclothes who decided he resembled the composite sketch of the rapist. The following day, a detective went to Tim’s apartment and took a Polaroid photo of him.
Detectives then showed the assault survivor a photo lineup including six color photographs. Tim’s was the only Polaroid; the other five were standard mugshots. Tim was looking at the camera in his photo while the subjects in the five mug shots were facing to the side. According to police, the assault survivor was immediately sure that Tim was her attacker, saying: “That’s him.”
The next day, police conducted an in-person lineup with Tim and four prisoners. The survivor again identified Tim. One of the survivors of a similar assault, as well as two other women who had filed police reports about a black man acting suspiciously on campus also viewed the lineup and did not identify Tim. Based on the recent sexual assault survivor’s identification, Tim was arrested and charged with the aggravated sexual assault. Tim was never charged with committing any other assaults, but he was charged with a separate attempted kidnapping of another woman. That charge was later dismissed.
In addition to the testimony of the assault survivor, a forensic examiner from the Texas Department of Public Safety testified that seminal fluid was present in the rape kit and testing found evidence the secretor had Type A blood, which was Tim’s blood type. The analyst also testified that pubic hairs collected from the rape kit had similar characteristics to Tim’s pubic hair, but said the analyst conducting the tests could not reach a firm conclusion.
Tim’s attorney presented an alibi defense – that he was studying at home, where his brother was drinking with several friends, on the night of the crime. His brother and friends testified that Tim had been at the apartment at the time of the attack. Tim also presented evidence that he had severe asthma and did not smoke cigarettes as the perpetrator had done in commission of the crime.
Tim’s attorney attempted to enter evidence that similar attacks had continued to occur in the months after his arrest, but the judge refused to allow most mentions of the uncharged crimes before the jury. His attorneys also attempted to present evidence that a very similar attack had occurred one month before the assault for which Tim was charged, and that fingerprints from the victim’s car in that case did not match Tim’s fingerprints. The judge also did not allow this evidence before the jury.
After six hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Tim. The next day, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Tim’s initial appeals were denied. In 1995, after the statute of limitations on the 1985 sexual assault had expired, a Texas prisoner named Jerry Wayne Johnson wrote to judges and the trial prosecutor in Lubbock County as well as Tim’s defense lawyer, saying that he had committed the sexual assault. Johnson was serving a life plus 99-year sentence after convictions for two sexual assaults with similar characteristics to the attack for which Tim had been convicted.
Johnson’s letters were not acknowledged. Tim died in prison of an asthma attack in 1999 without ever learning that Johnson was attempting to confess to the crime. The year after Tim died, Johnson wrote again to a supervising judge. This time, the case was moved to a different judge and rejected without comment.
Eventually, in May 2007, Johnson’s most recent confession letter reached the Innocence Project of Texas and Tim’s family. Attorneys at IPTX sought posthumous DNA testing in the case and Lubbock prosecutors cooperated. DNA testing conducted on semen from the crime scene excluded Tim and implicated Johnson as the perpetrator. During a hearing in February 2009, Johnson again confessed to the crime before a judge, Tim’s family and the victim.
The presiding judge officially exonerated Tim in a ruling issued on April 7, 2009. Governor Rick Perry pardoned Tim on March 1, 2010.
Soon after, the state of Texas passed the Timothy Cole Act, increasing compensation paid to exonerees to $80,000 per year served, expanding services offered to the exonerated after their release and adding compensation for the family of an exoneree if cleared after death. The state also created the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions in 2009 to study the prevention of wrongful convictions across the state.
In 2014, a 13-foot bronze statue of Tim was dedicated in Lubbock, depicting a young Tim Cole looking toward the Texas Tech University Law School. In March 2015, Texas Tech University System regents voted to posthumously award Tim an honorary degree in law and social justice.
Systemic Failures Have Wrongly
Imprisoned Thousands of
The Generosity of Their Fellow Citizens Can Provide Them
The Freedom They Deserve.