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Board of Regents Grants Honorary Degree to Timothy Cole

Timothy Cole

Timothy Cole

Cole, who was wrongly convicted of rape, was pardoned in 2010.

March 9, 2015 | Written by Heidi Toth

The Texas Tech University System Board of Regents voted Friday (March 6) to award an honorary degree to Timothy Cole.

In 1985 Cole was expelled after another student accused him of rape. He was convicted the next year and died in prison in 1999. Ten years later, DNA evidence showed he was not the rapist, and Gov. Rick Perry posthumously pardoned him in 2010.

To receive an honorary degree, a faculty member must nominate the potential recipient. Honors College associate dean Aliza Wong and Ricky Sherfield, the lead coordinator for the Cross Cultural Academic Advancement Center, nominated Cole at the end of last year. Texas Tech University President M. Duane Nellis then made a recommendation to the chancellor, who recommended it to the Board of Regents.

“Through no fault of his own, Timothy Cole did not realize the joyous moment of graduation and experience the rewards of earning a college degree,” Nellis said. “In this bittersweet moment, we are proud to posthumously bestow this much deserved honorary law degree on Timothy and hope it lends to the long and difficult healing process the Cole family has endured.”

The day was doubly special for Texas Tech University System Chancellor Robert L. Duncan, who worked with Cole’s family as a member of the Texas Senate.

“Timothy Cole’s story was the inspiration for the Texas Legislature to make historic progress on compensation for those who had been wrongly convicted in our criminal justice system,” Duncan said. “His incredible legacy is something that should never be forgotten.”

Cole was exonerated after another man, Jerry Wayne Johnson, confessed to the rape while serving life in prison for another crime. After significant work from the Innocence Project of Texas, DNA testing proved Cole was innocent. In 2009 the Texas Legislature passed the Tim Cole Act, which increased the compensation people who have been wrongly imprisoned can get from the state, actually making Texas the most generous state in the nation. His case has led to numerous other legislative reforms as well and continues to influence legislation today.

Cory Session, Cole’s younger brother and the policy director at the Innocence Project of Texas, said he appreciated the gesture from the university and all those who supported the process.

“We are grateful,” he said. “It’s been a quarter of a century, and we finally have justification for his education and his diploma. We are pleased.”

The family will come to Lubbock for the ceremony in May, he said.

Former criminal investigator Fred McKinley, who wrote “A Plea for Justice: The Timothy Cole Story,” also requested that the university consider granting Cole a degree. Monday was an emotional day for him.

“At this point it’s more about the celebration of Tim Cole’s life,” McKinley said. “He wanted to be vindicated, exonerated and pardoned, and of course all those things came to pass.

“But his mother said she wished he’d gotten a degree, and this is a fulfillment of that process.”

Cole’s degree will be conferred May 15 at a ceremony at the Texas Tech University School of Law.

About the Texas Tech University System 
The Texas Tech University System is one of the top public university systems in the nation, consisting of four component institutions—Texas Tech UniversityTexas Tech University Health Sciences CenterAngelo State University and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso—and operating at 12 academic sites and centers.  Headquartered in Lubbock, Texas, the Texas Tech University System has an annual operating budget of $1.7 billion and approximately 17,000 employees focused on advancing higher education, health care, research and outreach. 

In 2014, the Texas Tech University System’s endowment exceeded $1 billion, total research expenditures were approximately $200 million and total enrollment approached 47,000 students. Whether it’s contributing billions of dollars annually in economic impact or being the only system in Texas to house an academic institution, law school, and health institution at the same location, the Texas Tech University System continues to prove that anything is possible.