How do you say, "I'm sorry," to a dead man?
How do you say, "Thank you," to an admitted, convicted rapist?
How do you say, "I forgive you," to a sexual assault victim who made a grave mistake?
And how do you chastise a criminal justice system that allowed what happened to a young Texas Tech student from Fort Worth who had such a promising future?
"Timothy Cole suffered the greatest miscarriage of justice imaginable in our criminal justice system. I've been doing this for almost 30 years, and this is the saddest case I've seen," said state District Judge Charles Baird in announcing Friday that he was exonerating Cole – posthumously – for a crime he did not commit.
Accused of the 1985 rape of a Texas Tech student, Cole was convicted on faulty evidence and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He died there in 1999, still professing his innocence.
He was so determined not to give in to the system that he refused probation and later parole because it meant he would have to confess to an offense in which he had no part.
I never knew Cole, but I knew members of his family. His uncle, the late Andrew "Doc" Session, was one of my coaches, counselors and mentors-for-life.
In the summer of 2007, I went by the house Doc built in Riverside and bequeathed to Cole’s younger brother, Cory Session. Doc always wanted Cory to move back to the neighborhood where he was born.
Shortly after that visit, Cory called to say there was something else he wanted to talk about and his mother had something I should see.
His mom, Ruby Session, recently had received a letter addressed to her son from an inmate in the state penitentiary. The convict, Jerry Wayne Johnson, who is serving two life sentences for sexual assault, admitted that he was the true "Tech Rapist" and, in fact, had committed the crime for which Cole was convicted.
Johnson assumed Cole was still in prison but could not find his name in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system. That's when he decided to send the letter in care of Cole's mother. Johnson had written Lubbock County officials since 1995 trying to clear Cole's name, but officials did nothing.
Although Cole was from Fort Worth, there were no press accounts in North Texas about the crime or the conviction, and the mother thought the people of his hometown should know Cole’s story.
Much of the world now knows his story.
Cole first enrolled at Texas Tech hoping to be a "walk-on" to the school's basketball team. After two years, he went to the Army for a couple of years and returned to Tech when his younger brother, Reginald Kennard, enrolled in 1985. They were roommates. Other family members planned to join them.
The year Cole's trial started, a younger sister, Karen Kennard, graduated from SMU and enrolled at Tech's law school, motivated in part because of the injustice being done to her brother. She is now an assistant city attorney in Austin. Cory and another sibling planned to attend as well, but after their brother's conviction, they chose the University of Texas at Austin.
The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal began reporting the story of Cole's possible innocence, and the Innocence Project of Texas got involved, trying to persuade the district attorney’s office in Lubbock to do the DNA testing that was not available at the time of the trial. Star-Telegram reporter Max Baker also began reporting on the case.
Authorities in Lubbock dragged their feet, but they did get around to doing the DNA testing that proved that Cole was not the rapist and that Johnson was.
The family sought full exoneration, believing the best thing they could do for Cole was clear his name. Despite the compelling new evidence, a court in Lubbock would not take up the case, so lawyers took it to the district court in Austin.
One of the most heartwarming moments during this ordeal was when the victim, Michele Mallin of Baytown, came to Fort Worth to meet Ruby Session and her family and apologize for having pointed out Cole as the rapist more than 22 years ago.
As the mother and Mallin embraced outside the house that Doc built, Session told the victim: "You've got to get over this. You didn't do anything wrong. You are a victim just like my son was."
Evidence shows that investigators used a faulty photo lineup – Cole's photo, a Polaroid, was clearly different – and a shirt that had been taken from Cole's apartment did not match the shirt worn by the assailant when Mallin was attacked.
Johnson, although waiting until after the statute of limitations had expired before confessing, deserves some credit for finally setting the record straight. He testified in the Austin hearing last week and was compelled to hear a forceful rebuke from Mallin.
Lubbock County District Attorney Matt D. Powell was in Austin on Friday, reportedly on a recruiting trip, but did not attend the court of inquiry into Cole's case. The very least he could have done was to go by and apologize on behalf of Lubbock County.
Now the family is asking Gov. Rick Perry to pardon Cole, something surely the governor will have no problem doing.
The family will be back in Austin soon, working on passage of a bill that bears Cole's name. It would change the way photo lineups are conducted by police and investigators.
"I find that Timothy Cole's reputation was wrongly injured, that his reputation must be restored, and that his good name must be vindicated," Baird said from the bench.
It was the state's way of finally saying "sorry" to a wrongly convicted man, who is now dead.