No Country for Innocent Men
How a rapist's confession forced Rick Perry, champion of Texas justice, to pardon a dead man.
"Dear Mr. Cole," the letter began. "My name is Jerry Wayne Johnson. I'm presently a Texas prisoner. You may recall my name from your 1986 rape trial in Lubbock."
Ruby Session was shaking as she read on. The year was 2007, and the letter was addressed to her son Timothy Cole. "I have been trying to locate you since 1995 to tell you I wish to confess I did in fact commit the rape Lubbock wrongly convicted you of."
Ruby sat down, stood up. A picture of Tim in a tuxedo, taken at his junior prom, smiled from the mantle. Before his trial the prosecutor had offered him a deal to plead to lesser charges. "Mother," Tim had said, "I am not pleading guilty to something I didn't do." He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Thirteen years later, he died behind bars.
The Texas criminal-justice system has long had a harsh reputation, but it has drawn renewed scrutiny with Gov. Rick Perry's run for president. During the past 11 years, Perry has presided over 238 executions, including the infamous case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death based on a dubious arson investigation. In a September debate, Perry famously said that he had lost no sleep over the possibility of an innocent man being executed on his watch.
Yet during his governorship, Texas has exonerated no fewer than 56 people. All had served years, sometimes decades, in prison; five were on death row. As Perry sees it, these exonerations don't suggest a problem with the system—they demonstrate that it's working. "We have a very lengthy and methodical process of appeals," he said in March 2010. "And that is a great and good mark for Texas."
Perry made those remarks during an extraordinary ceremony in which he handed down the first posthumous pardon in Texas history. Timothy Cole, imprisoned while a 26-year-old student at Texas Tech University, had been failed by the justice system at every turn. But what makes his story particularly gut-wrenching is that he perished in prison even as the real rapist, Jerry Johnson, tried repeatedly to confess to the crime. By the time Johnson's story was heard, Cole had been dead nearly a decade.
The tale of Tim Cole and Jerry Johnson, which I investigated for more than a year, reveals a system in which an innocent man, once convicted, has virtually no chance of redemption—even with the guilty man fighting for it. For the thousands of Americans spending years of their lives in prison for crimes they did not commit, the odds couldn't be much bleaker.
On the night of March 24, 1985, Texas Tech sophomore Michele Murray was parking her car near campus when a tall black man in a yellow terry-cloth shirt approached and asked her for jumper cables. He reached into the window, unlocked the door, and shoved Murray to the passenger side. He forced her head down onto the seat and held a knife to her neck. He told her that if she kept screaming she wouldn't come back alive.
He smoked while he drove. He asked her name, her major. He took her to a field outside of town and raped her. He smoked when he was done. Then he made her drive him back to town, stole her jewelry and money, and took off on foot.
It was the fifth rape on or around the Texas Tech campus in four months. Female students were frantic. Police were on high alert. In all the cases, a young woman was approached in her car by a tall black man—identified as a smoker by three of the victims—who drove her outside of town at knifepoint and raped her. Composite sketches of the "Tech rapist" in the local papers seemed to change daily. Only about 500 of the 22,000 students on campus were black, and it became a grim joke among them: Don't walk around campus at night or they'll say you're the rapist.
The shoddy police investigation and sensational trial that followed were capped by a remarkable coincidence. When Cole was taken to the Lubbock County Jail after his sentencing, in September 1986, the real rapist was right there in a nearby cell. Johnson, who was awaiting trial for two other rapes and a murder, had followed Cole's story in the paper. He listened to Cole cry. "It was terrible to learn that Tim was…on trial for something I knew he hadn't done," Johnson wrote to me in a letter in 2010. "Seeing him cry his first night in jail and seeing him leave to be taken to prison was difficult, I cried." But he did nothing. He was already facing the death penalty. "I knew it wasn't good to say anything before I went to trial." Later he would learn in the prison library that there was also the statute of limitations to consider. So he kept his mouth shut—for nine years.
Johnson grew up in the 1960s on the east side of Lubbock, an impoverished neighborhood of cotton fields and ramshackle houses. He was raised mostly by his great-grandmother; his mother, JoNell Johnson, and grandmother lived nearby, as did his estranged father, Lorenzo Harris. "Sometimes Jerry would come over to the house, be out there at the fence," Harris recalls. "He knew I was his daddy, but my wife would run him off."
Johnson was 12 years old the night in 1971 when his mother shot and killed a boyfriend after he assaulted her with a pool cue. (She was eventually sentenced to 10 years' probation.) He dropped out of high school but managed steady employment in blue-collar jobs. He had two children and got married in the early 1980s. But by 1985, Johnson says, he had lost control. "Obviously I had a psychological breakdown," he says. "Why, I don't know." When pressed, he demurs. "I cannot form a reason or cause for my actions."
Johnson raped Murray in March, he now admits, but investigators never pursued him as a suspect. He was arrested that July, however, for raping a woman he met at a party. In October, out on bond, he was arrested for kidnapping and raping a 15-year-old girl from Estacado High School; two years later, he was convicted of those crimes and sentenced to life in prison. He was also charged with murdering an insurance saleswoman, but those charges were dropped.