Innocence project hosts event at SMU
It felt like one of those roller coasters seen when driving by Six Flags over Texas. A
Cory Session was 17 when he heard that his brother, Timothy Cole, was convicted of an aggravated sexual assault that he didn’t commit near Texas Tech in 1985. Even with an alibi, a spotless criminal record and proof of severe asthma when the perpetrator was a heavy smoker, one witness’s identification of Tim Cole as the perpetrator was enough to lock him away for 25 years.
“Where are we?” Session said in a recent interview. “What world are we in, what country do we come from? This is the United States.”
Thirteen years later, Tim died while incarcerated. It was another nine years before Session and his mother saw Cole’s name cleared by the work of the Innocence Project of Texas (IPTX).
“My mother passed away in October last year, and that was her one quest for decades: live long enough to see his name clear, and she got to see a lot more than his name clear,” said Session, who left his job as a legislative aid to join IPTX in 2009, and is now their policy director.
Cory Session is coming to speak at SMU along with District Attorney Craig Watkins and three Dallas exonerees, including Johnnie Lindsey, Christopher Scott and Billy Smith as part of a panel in the IPTX Student Organization’s first campus-wide event Feb. 26. SMU junior Steven Evans, student president of the IPTX student organization, has coordinated the event as an introduction of the 3-year-old student group and its mission to the SMU campus. The panel will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Hillcrest Room of the Underwood Law Library.
“Our work is significant because it’s helping people who cannot help themselves. It’s finding the needle in the haystack,” Evans said. “The innocent person in prison we have a chance of freeing.”
The Innocence Project of Texas, founded in 2007, is a nonprofit organization that serves to exonerate wrongly convicted inmates in Texas. The office, headquartered Lubbock, receives 100-150 letters a week from inmates and family members seeking the Innocence Project’s help.
In addition to the student organization on SMU’s campus, the IPTX works with students from the University of Texas at Dallas, Texas A&M; University and the law school at Texas Tech University. Both undergraduate and law students sort through the innocence claims mailed to IPTX. The students read and digest cases, take copious notes and then write a memo detailing whether or not the case is winnable and worth pursuit and litigation.
The 17 students volunteering this semester at SMU are broken into three groups, each assigned a different case. The cases they read are confidential and cannot be discussed outside of the organization.
“My favorite part of working on the cases is reading through the nitty-gritty details,” Evans said. “There are some comical prosecutors.”
To make it to this step of the exoneration process, the claim for innocence must pertain to an inmate convicted of a felony within the state of Texas. On top of these credentials, the cases must also be provable. The screening process is rigorous because, as a small nonprofit, financial resources are limited.
“The cases that we pick and that we actually litigate, we’re usually pretty confident in because we’re not going to spend a lot of time and money on cases that we don’t think we can win,” said Natalie Roetzel, chief staff attorney of IPTX. “We have a lot of faith in the clients that we do choose, and we work very closely with them and very diligently on their files.”
While pursuing exonerations of innocent Texas inmates is the more immediate goal of the organization, the overarching mission is to evoke reforms in the legislative system to prevent wrongful convictions from occurring in the first place.
“If we don’t learn something from all of our cases then we’ve failed,” Roetzel said. “What we want to be able to do is take these cases, make examples of them, and basically demonstrate what reforms might be available to prevent those injustices from happening in the future.”
As a result of Timothy Cole’s exoneration in 2009, an advisory panel was created to review wrongful convictions in Texas and compile legislative solutions. Five of the six suggested reforms have already been adopted by the legislature, and the IPTX is pushing for the sixth, dealing with false confessions, in the upcoming session January 2015.
Timothy Cole’s case “was not only a triumph for his family, but his name and story have been the source of a lot of change in the state,” IPTX Executive Director Nick Vilbas said.
Cole was arrested for the rape after the victim, Michele Mallin, misidentified him as her assailant in a photo line-up. She said that at the time she was positive it was Cole.
The Innocence Project of Texas’s next goal is a move to Dallas. Their headquarters are in Lubbock, and as the organization continues to grow, they are seeking a more central location to ease the cooperation of the organization with its student groups at campuses like SMU and UT Dallas.
“Dallas has the largest student population out of any groups that we work with, and it seems to have the most enthusiasm from students,” Roetzel said. “Having that central hub for our organization would be a major success story for us.”
Visit the IPTX website for more information. The panel, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26, is open to the public and will be located in the Hillcrest Room of Underwood Law Library.