People often ask me what distinguishes Friends of Justice from other advocacy groups. In lieu of an answer, let me tell you a story.
Five women have been raped by a black man in a mid-sized college town. An alarmed community is crying out for justice. Investigators have been working on the case for months but still have no suspect. So they get creative.
An attractive young woman in revealing clothes enters a popular college pizza joint. Patrons have no way of knowing she is a police officer. A few moments later, the woman leaves the restaurant. A young black male follows her out the door. He walks to her car. He offers to drive her home. He asks for her phone number. He offers to take her to a bar and buy her a drink.
Back at the station, the police officer gets the name of the man who followed her out of the restaurant and does a background check. It happens to be the same guy she arrested a few months earlier for possessing marijuana and carrying an illegal weapon.
Officers take a Polaroid picture to the most recent victim. “That’s him,” she says.
Shortly thereafter, the victim picks the suspect out of a police line up.
Convinced they have their man, police make an arrest and move toward trial.
No physical evidence ties the suspect to the crime and several witnesses are ready to testify that they were with him at the time of the rape. A classic he-said-she-said stand-off. Who are you going to believe, the woman who was raped or friends eager to bolster their buddy’s alibi?
A trial date is set.
Now, suppose you are the man charged with rape. The prosecutor offers you a sweetheart deal in exchange for a confession. You won’t take the deal. You aren’t going to confess to a crime you didn’t do. The DA shrugs and tells you to have it your way.
Who ya gonna call?
The ACLU? The NAACP? The nearest Innocence Project? Amnesty International? The Southern Poverty Law Center? The Center for Constitutional Rights?
You have never heard of most of these outfits and it wouldn’t matter if you had; None of these organizations has a strategy for pre-conviction intervention in criminal cases. They do some wonderful things, but pre-trial intervention isn’t one of them. The need is there, certainly, but, apart from securing qualified legal counsel, no one has a strategy that addresses cases like this.
You’ve already got a defense attorney and he’s doing everything he can. But ethics rules make it hard for defense counsel to get their side of the story to the media. The attorney tries to get additional facts into the courtroom, but the judge slams the door.
The case goes to trial. Nobody learns that the state had identified another suspect. Nobody learns that four additional rape victims couldn’t pick the defendant out of a line-up. It never comes to light that the case involving the dope and the gun occurred after the defendant had been robbed. When he called the police, they weren’t interested in his story, but he looked suspicious so they decided to conduct a search.
The jury never hears that several police officers, aware of these facts, were beginning to question the state’s handling of the case. The defense attorney has spoken to some of these officers, but the judge won’t let them testify.
The jury and the media hear only one story. The rape victim says the suspect raped her. It feels so good to put a rapist behind bars. It feels so bad to contemplate letting a guy who can’t prove his innocence walk free over a technicality like reasonable doubt.
The all-white jury deliberates for six hours and comes back with a unanimous verdict. Guilty as charged.
In retrospect, an air of inevitability hung over the case. You take a heinous crime, a sympathetic white victim, a black guy who has already been charged with two felonies, unswerving eye-witness testimony, an all-white jury and a law-n-order town and you will get a conviction every time.
But is the guy guilty?
With evidence this ambiguous, how can you be sure?
It’s simple, really. Twelve jurors heard all the evidence and reached a unanimous verdict. That’s how you know he’s guilty.
The defendant in this case has a name: Timothy Brian Cole.
Ten years after conviction, the real rapist (the man the police were considering until they pulled their surveillance trick in the Pizza Joint) wrote a letter of confession. He had waited patiently for the statute of limitations to expire, then he made his move.
A judge refused to hold a hearing.
Four years later, Timothy Cole died; his asthma aggravated by stress and prison condictions.
In 2001, the actual rapist, a man named Jerry Wayne Johnson, was released from prison. He made a second attempt to confess.
Finally, in 2007, Johnson’s third confession, combined with a request to re-test the rape kit, was presented to a Lubbock Judge.
This appeal was made to an Austin judge who granted a hearing at the conclusion of which Timothy Cole was fully exonerated . . . eight years after his death.
Michelle Mallin, the woman whose confident testimony put Tim Cole behind bars got the news from investigator George White.
“You shouldn’t feel bad about this, Michele,” White told her. “[Cole] put himself in that lineup . . . It’s OK. He had asthma. He was going to die anyway.”
In the great city of Lubbock, a confession from the actual rapist and irrefutable DNA evidence wasn’t enough to prompt a re-evaluation of Tim Cole’s case. How would Tim have faired if, like 90% of defendants charged with violent crimes, there was no DNA evidence to examine? He would still be known, if he was known at all, as the woman who raped Michelle Mallin in 1985.
If possible, Friends of Justice intervenes prior to final conviction. We tell the story defense counsel is usually prohibited from telling. We get the background information courtroom reporters rarely find. We review the case from every angle imaginable: history, sociology, even theology come into the process. We aren’t bound by the rules impinging on officers of the court.
We are loose canons, but we are never reckless.
When legal professionals cannot or will not or will not tell the truth, Friends of Justice fills the gap.