The following op-ed article was published in the Houston Chronicle on July 31, 2009.
Forensic science institute could spare future victims
By MICHELLE MALLIN
July 31, 2009, 9:02PM
It's been more than two decades, but it is still as fresh and as vivid in my mind as it was that night in 1985.
I was a sophomore at Texas Tech, coming back to my dorm on a Sunday night after visiting my family. A man forced his way into my car and put a knife to my throat. He pushed me into the passenger seat, began to drive, and told me he would kill me if I didn't stop screaming. I believed him. He drove to a field in a remote part of town, where he raped me.
Later, I learned that I was the fifth victim of a serial rapist on campus. A man named Timothy Cole was convicted of raping me and sentenced to 25 years in prison. I was relieved that he had been apprehended, that he would pay for what he did to me, and that our criminal justice system had gotten him off the streets. But I also knew my life would never be the same again. I spent years in counseling and tried to move on with my life.
Then, last summer, I was forced to relive the entire nightmare — this time with the added tragedy of knowing that Timothy Cole had been innocent and died in prison before he could be exonerated. New DNA testing proved that another man, not Cole, raped me. I was stunned. And I was determined to get answers.
I put my faith in the criminal justice system, and it failed me. I am back in counseling to grapple with the renewed trauma of the rape and the knowledge that I played a role in Cole's wrongful conviction by identifying him as the man who attacked me.
I have learned a great deal over the last year — about myself, about Cole and about our system of justice. One of the most troubling things I've learned is that juries often hear evidence that is not as solid as it sounds.
In case after case, scientists testify that a hair from a crime scene is similar to the defendant's hair, or that markings on a bullet match a particular gun. These and other forms of forensic science can be persuasive to a jury, but nobody knows how accurate the science is (including the forensic analyst who conducted the tests).
Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences released a major report finding serious problems with much of the forensic science that our criminal justice system uses every day. The report urged Congress to create a National Institute of Forensic Science to oversee research that can determine how accurate these scientific disciplines are, set standards for what kind of science should be used and how it should be presented, and oversee the enforcement of those standards.
I hope Congress takes action on this soon, and I hope members of the House and Senate from Texas take the lead, in the name of everyone in our state who has been touched by this issue.
Cole and I weren't the only ones whose lives were forever changed by what happened in 1985. We now know, through DNA testing and his own confession, that Jerry Wayne Johnson raped me. After Cole was convicted, Johnson abducted a couple and raped the woman in a cotton field. When he was out on bond awaiting trial for that rape, he raped a 15-year old girl at knifepoint.
Eventually, Johnson was convicted for those crimes. But they could have been prevented entirely if he had been apprehended after he raped me. It's hard for me to think about that woman and her husband, or that 15-year-old girl. I know what they went through — and, today, we know that they could have been spared the unspeakable horror.
We need to make sure our criminal justice system uses reliable, solid evidence to accurately identify suspects and convict criminals. Right now, forensic science is badly lacking, but creating a National Institute of Forensic Science can start to change that. The stakes are too high to do anything less.
Mallin was born in Houston and raised in Baytown. She resides in Baytown with her husband of 19 years, Jim Mallin.