The heavy toll of prison on an innocent man, Tim Cole.

When Pictures Say Far More than One Thousand Words

Clinging to Hope, Even Though Justice is Nowhere to Be Found

October 2015

The heavy toll of prison on an innocent man, Tim Cole.

BY MARK SAXENMEYER

Look good and hard at the two photos above. The man on the left is Tim Cole, before he was wrongfully convicted of raping a fellow student at Texas Tech University. The man on the right is also Tim Cole, after spending five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

One of the people we’ve interviewed for our documentary, The Innocent Convicts, described the photo on the right like this: “It looks like he’s gone insane.”

You might too, sitting behind bars, trying desperately to believe that justice will still be served, that the system actually does work, that eventually you’ll be cleared—despite all that’s happened to you.

I’m writing these words just hours before our IndieGoGo Crowdfunding Campaign for The Innocent Convicts comes to end. After 30 days, the campaign concludes at 11:59 p.m. CST on Wednesday September 7th. We’ve raised more than $9,000 thanks to 120 (and counting) generous backers. But we still have a ways to go, and we’re hoping that you’ll consider a contribution, no matter how small.

Please know that regardless of how much we raise, this film will be made. (Unlike some crowdfunding sites, IndieGoGo allows you to keep what you’ve raised, even if you don’t meet your goal.) We owe that to Tim Cole, and to the thousands of other innocent inmates across the country fighting for their freedom. We have several additional interviews to shoot in Texas in connection with the Cole case, and we begin interviews in Minnesota with the Innocence Project later this month. We plan on profiling both exonerees and people still fighting for their freedom in Illinois and California. And we’ll be meeting with leaders of the National Registry of Exonerations in Michigan.

Speaking of, I was checking out the Registry’s complete list of exonerees earlier today— just scrolling through the exhaustive spreadsheet of 1,651 innocent men and women who once had no hope. They’d been convicted of burglary, robbery, drug or gun-related offenses, assault, fraud, kidnapping, rape, child sex abuse and murder. Serious stuff, serious sentences.

Seriously insane, since they didn’t do it.

Some of the names stood out. There’s the case of Rolando Cruz, a name that’s infamous in Illinois. Cruz was wrongfully convicted of killing a 10-year-old Illinois girl in 1983 and sentenced to death. Despite claims of investigation fraud, accusations of perjured testimony, and two conviction reversals, police and prosecutors would not relent in their insistence that Cruz was guilty. DNA eventually established definitively that another man was responsible for the murder, but not before 11 years of Cruz’ life were stolen from him, and his name dragged through the mud.

Then there’s a name like Michael Hansen, a common name, especially in a place like Minnesota where Hansens and Hansons abound. He was wrongfully convicted of killing his three-month-old daughter, accused of fracturing her skull. He served six years until the Innocence Project of Minnesota re-opened his case and the evidence was more carefully examined and presented. Turns out, his daughter’s fracture actually occurred days earlier after a fall from a shopping cart, an injury that led to a silent, accidental death. A complicated case, one that might have remained an unsolved mystery if not for a brilliant team of legal and medical experts–many of them working for free–who listened to the protests of an innocent man and dedicated themselves to uncovering the truth.

Our plan for this documentary is to weave stories like these into a thorough examination of the causes and reasons for wrongful convictions. We’ll look at the failings of the criminal justice system and law enforcement, but more importantly, what’s being done, or should be done, to address the issues and, hopefully, start fixing some of the problems. There are no easy answers, obviously, but you can’t find solutions unless someone is asking the questions that lead to new ideas, debates and discussions. The Innocent Convicts aims to be an informative and compelling presentation that makes folks sit up, take note, and take action.

Only a few hours left to join our team, to accept our invitation, to become part of The Innocent Convicts by making a contribution. That’s what crowdfunding is all about—to create a surge, a swell, a wave of similarly minded people who want to see an idea or a cause gain traction and become a reality. If you believe in nonprofit journalism, in independent film and in social justice, we hope you’ll join the crowd–our crowd.

Tim Cole died in prison, after an asthma attack, several years before DNA evidence would clear him. He was posthumously exonerated, the first person in Texas with that “honor.”

May he rest in peace. He deserves that, and obviously, much, much more. Yet let’s not forget, none of us, the look in his eyes, in the photo on the right. It’s chilling, it’s haunting, it’s disturbing.

Before his death, Tim wrote his family from prison saying that he hadn’t given up on the justice system, even though, he said, it appeared as if the justice system had given up on him.

Chilling, haunting, disturbing…indeed.

Mark Saxenmeyer is the executive producer of The Innocent Convicts. He can be reached at info@thereporters.org. You can read more about him on our Team page. 

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