AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The long-estranged father of the first Texas prison inmate to be posthumously exonerated by DNA testing has suddenly come forward, claiming he's entitled to half of the nearly $1.1 million the state awarded to the man's family for his wrongful imprisonment.
Ernest J. Kennard appeared in a Fort Worth court this month and obtained a judge's order entitling him to half of the estate of Tim Cole, who was wrongfully convicted for a 1985 rape but died in prison before he was declared innocent. Relatives are outraged that Kennard would turn up now, after having no contact with the family for decades, said Cole's half brother Cory Session.
"He is the deadest of dead-beat dads," said Session, policy director for the Innocence Project of Texas, which helps clear wrongfully convicted prison inmates. "When he showed up in court, we were all like, 'Who is this man?' He's like a stranger."
Session said the court order, which directed the estate be shared with Cole's mother, has been suspended pending a review of Cole's will. He said his mother plans to sue Kennard for back child support if he receives any compensation.
Kennard's attorney, Aaron Ray, did not return a series of phone calls from The Associated Press this week. Kennard lives in Houston but two phone numbers listed for him have been disconnected, and a man who answered a third said he had never heard of him.
A U.S. Army veteran, Cole was studying at Texas Tech University when he was convicted of the 1985 rape of a fellow student. He always maintained his innocence, even though admitting to the crime could have earned him parole.
Cole was 39 when he died behind bars in 1999 from asthma complications. Nine years later, a DNA test cleared him of the crime and implicated convicted rapist Jerry Wayne Johnson, who confessed in several letters to court officials that date back to 1995.
Last year, Gov. Rick Perry granted Texas' first posthumous pardon to Cole.
The case led to the 2009 Timothy Cole Act, under which Texas increased the compensation it pays to those wrongfully convicted from $50,000 to $80,000 for each year they spent in prison. So far, 43 inmates have been exonerated in Texas - more than any other state - according to the New York-based Innocence Project. The organization specializes in using DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions, and the Innocence Project of Texas is its local arm.
Cole's family received $1.06 million in compensation in May, according to the Texas Comptroller's Office.
Cole's mother, Ruby Session, is in charge of his estate. She told the AP she did not want to speak about the matter, and her Fort Worth-based attorney, Robert Gieb, also declined comment.
Kennard claimed during the Dec. 13 court hearing that he was one of Cole's heirs. Court documents show that an associate judge ruled that the heirs were Cole's mother as well as Kennard, and that the estate should be divided equally between the parents.
Cory Session said the ruling was suspended pending review of a will that Cole created while in the Army. The will is not expected to be publicly released until at least next month.
Court documents don't show any record of the judge's order being suspended, but they do indicate a letter being issued for a further hearing in the matter. It's unclear when that hearing might be held. When contacted by phone, an administrator for the Tarrant County court read through the documents but couldn't provide further guidance on what the next step might be.
Cory Session said Kennard was subpoenaed to appear at the hearing, and the judge asked him just two questions: Did Tim Cole have any children and was he ever married? Kennard answered "no" to both.
Session said his mother doesn't dispute that Kennard is Cole's father, but from the day Cole was born, Kennard said he wanted nothing to do with the baby. That prompted her to leave Kennard's name off Cole's birth certificate, Session said.
"His birth certificate says Timothy Brian Cole, Mother: Ruby Cole. Where it says 'Father' it's blank," he said.
Session said the family was further angered that during the court proceedings, Kennard didn't ask where Cole was buried - even though his gravesite was two miles from the Fort Worth courtroom.
"He finally came to Fort Worth after all of those years ignoring us, and he didn't even want to go see him," Session said.
Session said Cole was raised by his mother and stepfather. He said that if the judge's order stands, his mother plans to sue Kennard for back child support.
"We need to make him accountable," Session said. "He's not going to swoop in, sign on the dotted line, and get well over half a million dollars. Actually, he might do it, but we'll make sure he doesn't get away with it."
Associated Press writer Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth contributed to this report.