From the forced migration of Africans before the founding of the United States until now, the law of the land has been weighted against African American people. Sometimes, this can take the form of open brutality, like in the recent police murders of Sean Bell and Oscar Grant.
Or other times, the violence can happen more slowly, as it did in the case of Timothy Cole. Cole, an African American man convicted of raping a white woman in 1985, was officially declared innocent this February, over nine years after he met his death in prison in 1999.
If he had his freedom, Cole would likely have lived past the young age of 39. Unhealthy prison conditions worsened the asthma that killed him, asthma that kept him on medication as a youngster. Due to this severe asthma, Cole was never a smoker.
Yet one of the few features that the victim used to identify her assailant was his excessive smoking. This part of the truth mattered much less to the state than one of the other identifying features – that the assailant had been a black man. Cole was convicted without physical evidence, and against the testimony of several young people who said they were in the same apartment as him on the night in question.
Later, after the statute of limitations ran out in 1995, someone else confessed. The real perpetrator was Jerry Johnson, convicted for other rapes that had plagued the area. Johnsons name came up repeatedly during Coles trial, and several clues connected the cases, including a similar method of abduction as well as Johnson being a heavy smoker. The state ignored this.
Johnson sent the authorities several letters of confession. Every attempt to tell the truth met silence until 2007 when Johnson finally got a confession letter to Coles family. Cole became one of 34 men in Texas, mostly black men, to be exonerated of rape by DNA testing following long prison terms (www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100249923).
Once before and once during his incarceration, Cole was offered parole if he would only admit guilt. Both times he refused. His courageous commitment to the truth shames his captors and their system all the more.
Capitalism depends on racism to divide and rule us, and the legal system will always favor those who can afford to buy the best lawyers. The system is stacked against people of color, and also against all working-class people. That is why we need to work together to change it.