Tim Cole's name may not ring a bell to the everyday person, but his story is an inspiring, albeit heartbreaking, one of a man who stood by his honor, even when grappling with a broken justice system.
According to USA Today, Cole, who was falsely accused of rape in 1985 in Lubbock County, Texas, was immortalized Wednesday with a bronze statue unveiled at Tim Cole Memorial Park near Texas Tech University during a ceremony that was attended by state officials including Gov. Rick Perry.
"This statue will serve as a reminder that justice must be tempered with wisdom," the governor told the audience, which included members of Cole's family. "And we must all stand vigilant against injustice, wherever it may be found."
According to CNN, Cole was a Texas Tech student that fateful day back in the '80s, when he was accused and eventually convicted of raping fellow student Michelle Mallin at knifepoint. Mallin chose Cole's picture out of a lineup, but it was later discovered that the lineup was rigged to make Cole's picture stand out. (While rape victims are not normally named, USA Today reported Mallin's, explaining that she has made her name public regarding the incident.)
With odds stacked against the young man, he was given a choice between admitting his so-called guilt and getting a lighter punishment, or prison. Cole refused to confess to something he didn't do and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He died in prison years later in 1999 of an asthma-induced heart attack, USA Today notes.
"It became clear early on that Tim Cole was a very powerful symbol of what had gone wrong with the Texas criminal-justice system," Jeff Blackburn, founder and chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, told the news site. It was the Innocence Project that took on Cole's case.
But it was still years after Cole's death before he was exonerated. Even equipped with a 2006 letter from another inmate admitting to the rape, the Innocence Project faced hurdles in clearing Cole's name. County courts refused to reopen the case, so Blackburn had to resort to using a 19th-century provision of the state's constitution to take the case outside its jurisdiction to Austin, where District Court Judge Charles Baird finally exonerated the already deceased young man. Perry later pardoned Cole.
"It was very, very sad that Tim Cole had died in prison," Baird, who still practices privately in Austin, told USA Today. "I thought it would be a tragedy and a travesty of justice if we didn't let everyone know he didn't belong there."
Cole's case led to wide-ranging reforms in the Texas criminal-justice system, including the Tim Cole Act, which entitles exonerated inmates to $80,000 for each year they were kept in prison, USA Today notes.