Friday, February 6, 2009

In Texas, justice is denied and not color blind

Via Ta-Nehisi, a disturbing NPR story that reminds me that all of us are vulnerable when prosecutors play fast and loose with the idea of guilty beyond all reasonable doubt:

But there were holes in the prosecution's case. No physical evidence tied Cole to the crime. Although the rapist drove the car extensively, Cole's fingerprints were not found in the vehicle. Cole also had a solid alibi: At the time of the rape, he was studying in his apartment while his brother was having a card party in the living room. Several young people testified at trial that Cole was in the apartment with them all evening.

... So far this decade, 34 men in Texas, most of them black, have been exonerated by modern DNA testing. They spent 10, 15, 20, even 27 years wrongly imprisoned for rape before being released. No such remedy is available for Cole, a bright, likeable young man who got along well with everyone and who, in the spring of 1985, had his whole life ahead of him.
As I've mentioned before, I had the opportunity - more like, the misfortune - to cover the execution of a condemned Texas inmate in 2000. Even today, I've never come to a consensus about whether I'm for or against the death penalty. I blame this on being raised in Texas.

But stories like the one about Timothy Cole nudge me ever closer to "against." If anything, this case is a reminder that this could have happened to me or any other unfortunate black guy wrongly fingered for a crime. Remember that: it could also happen to you.

Death, let alone a lengthy prison sentence, is an awful, irreversible punishment for an innocent man or woman. Our justice system is designed to border on the line of the first innocent man. But given Texas' penchant - especially Harris County, where Houston is the county seat - for pushing for the death penalty, I'm almost certain that someone has been wrongly executed. Most likely, someone black.

That it took DNA evidence years after Cole's death to exonerate him even though he had an alibi and witnesses, shows that ugly racial bias still remains endemic in the Texas criminal justice system.

I really don't know the right answer, or what anyone could ever say to make things right with Cole's family. But I do know that even in death, Cole deserves the justice that eluded him when he was alive.

Texas, at the least, owes him and his family that.


maria said...

i heard this on the radio. sat silent with tears rolling down my face. horrible story powerfully told. hope you got to hear it nut just read. some of the best journalism today is being done by NPR. cannot beat their international, economic, political and social reporting.

this reporter in particular, wade goodwny, is really, really great.

have to believe that lawyers today would never agree to an all white jury and that DNA evidence can help exonerate the wrongly accused.

blackink said...

I'll try to check out the audio link. The First Lady has been working on me to listen to NPR but, for whatever reason, I just can't do it. I have some sort of prejudice against public radio.

And as to your last point, I dunno. All-white juries are pretty much of fact of life in many places outside of large, metropolitan areas. Jena, Louisiana, for example.

As for DNA evidence, I'll have to blog or share a link about this story I recently read about how poorly funded and poorly run the forensics units are at a surprising number of law enforcement agencies. We're not doing as well in that area as we should. Funding and training are the major problems.