Jay Cooper was only two when his father was sent away for a crime he didn’t commit. Twenty-five years later, can father and son pick up where they left off?
Sitting on the patio of a coffee shop in the Uptown neighborhood of Dallas, Jay Cooper gazes out across the bustling sidewalk. Young couples with beautiful white smiles walk by pushing strollers. Families shop together, eating in the upscale restaurants, waiting in line at the movie theatre. It’s a bright Sunday afternoon, Father’s Day 2009.
Jay is slender, black, and 27. He wears jeans, a dark blue t-shirt, and a ball cap pulled low over the top of his face. He’s sipping a strawberry milkshake and waiting for his dad. This is not his neighborhood. His eyes are fixed on the shadows dancing across the three-story, million-dollar brownstone condos on the other side of the street.
This day doesn’t evoke fond memories for Jay. When he thinks of his father, his thoughts aren’t of fishing trips, playing catch, or seeking his counsel about shaving or girls. That’s because Jay’s father, Johnnie Earl Lindsey, was convicted of rape in 1983, when Jay was 2. Nearly twenty-six years later, DNA testing exonerated him. He was apologized to, given a new suit, and released.
This will be the first Father’s Day Johnnie and Jay spend together since Johnnie went away. Originally, the plan was a big backyard barbecue, with music and dancing and a family celebration. Then it was a nice lunch. Now it’s coffee.
As he waits, Jay tells me about his experience growing up without a father: The awkward moments when teachers ask what your father does for a living, the lonely “Donuts for Dads” mornings in elementary school, the weird feelings you get when you see movies or TV shows or hear a song about dads.
“Later in life there are relationship issues,” he says. “You have a hard time trusting people sometimes. And I—I used to have some problems with confidence.” If he’s lucky, he explains, it’s not something he thinks about all that often.
Now, after twenty-six years, father and son have the chance to build a relationship that a wrongful incarceration prevented. They have a chance, together, to cultivate meaning from tragic circumstances. Johnnie has his freedom, and Jay has what so few men who grow up without dads get: the knowledge that his father is innocent, taken away by circumstance beyond his control.
When Johnnie first got out, the family rejoiced. Jay wept in the courtroom. His mother had died six years earlier, and he felt like he’d been given a parent back. He picked up Johnnie for breakfast every morning. He volunteered to drive his father around for every errand.
But as the warm glow of what seemed like an unexpected miracle began to fade, and as Johnnie adjusted to living on the outside, life got more complicated: Johnnie’s story appeared in newspapers and on television, he got calls from long lost “cousins” who smelled money, he quickly got engaged to an ex-girlfriend. Johnnie couldn’t just pick up where his life had been interrupted twenty-five years ago. And no matter how hard both men tried, Jay found it difficult to think of his father as anything more than a new stranger in his life.
“It might sound weird,” Jay says, “but it’s a lot harder than you think.” He checks the time on his phone. Johnnie’s late. Jay lowers his head and sips his drink. His voice is soft and his words come out in small drips, like a broken shower nobody has the tools to fix. “You can’t just look at someone you don’t know and have him be your dad. It’s not like… It’s not like you imagine as a little kid.”
Spending half a lifetime in prison damages people. So does growing up without a father. And dealing with that damage is a lot harder than putting on a glove and playing catch.
A car horn squeals, tearing the tranquility of Jay’s pensive moment. The happy shoppers on the sidewalk come to a halt, staring. There’s a brown sedan, maybe a decade old, stopped at the curb next to the coffee shop and a smiling black man inside waving his arms.
The woman told police she was riding her bike around White Rock Lake that afternoon in 1982. She was 28, white. She said she was on the south side of the lake when a man jumped out and pulled her off her bike. She said he held her down and threatened to kill her. Then he raped her in the bushes in broad daylight. She told police the guy who did it was black, shirtless, and in his 20s.
Johnnie was a prime suspect. He worked in the commercial laundry across the street, he was a 30-year-old black man, and he had a criminal record that included rape. Six years earlier, Johnnie had pled guilty to sexually assaulting a woman in his neighborhood. “I was very young,” he tells me later. “It was very stupid. And I never denied it.” He says by the time of the White Rock Lake rape, he was getting his life in order. He was getting off drugs. He was holding down a steady job.
A few weeks after the rape, the woman moved to San Antonio. Nearly a year after she filed the original report, Dallas police mailed her a photo lineup. There were six men. Two were shirtless. One of them was Johnnie Earl Lindsey.
At trial, prosecutors contended Johnnie snuck away from the laundry for a few minutes, spotted a beautiful white girl alone in an isolated area, and couldn’t resist. Johnnie testified that he never left work that day. His boss at the laundry, a man named Mike Pollard, backed up Johnnie’s story.
He produced a time card that showed Johnnie was clocked in all afternoon. He explained that Johnnie worked at the front of the line in a large laundry operation with only a few employees. Had he left the building at the time of the rape, Pollard testified, “the entire line would have stopped. Someone definitely would have noticed that very quickly.”
The jury sentenced Johnnie to life in prison. His conviction was thrown out a year later on a technicality—he had been tried under the wrong statute. But Johnnie stayed in jail. “I thought there was no way they were going to do it again,” he says, looking back at his second trial. “Not twice. No chance.” In 1985, his second trial mirrored his first. He was convicted and again sentenced to life.
During his twenty-five years behind bars, Johnnie had several chances to confess to the crime in exchange for a reduced sentence—and, in some cases, near-immediate release. There were pre-trial meetings, sentencing hearings, and numerous parole board meetings. But Johnnie wouldn’t confess.
He wrote letters to lawyers, judges, the Texas Attorney General. But after a decade or so, he began to wonder if maybe he did do it. “You start thinking, did I blackout and commit this act without knowing it? How could I have done it? You just think… How?”
In 2006, after twenty-three years in prison, Johnnie was diagnosed with colon cancer. Not long into his recovery, he wrote another letter, explaining again, in detail, his wrongful conviction. This time it landed on the right desk, that of state District Judge Larry Mitchell. Johnnie got a note saying the judge has assigned public defender Michelle Moore to his case, and that he would be hearing more shortly.
Moore—a warm, bubbly woman with a sweet southern accent—is a board member of the Texas Innocence Project, a legal group that works to overturn wrongful convictions. Until 2007, when Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins took office, Dallas prosecutors resisted the idea of spending thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to run DNA tests for convicted felons, no matter how circumstantial the evidence may have been.
But Watkins, the first black DA in Texas history, created the country’s first “Conviction Integrity Unit.” The DA’s office worked with the Texas Innocence Project to review more than four-hundred old cases. They initially tested the DNA evidence in forty of those cases. One of those was Johnnie’s. (continued on page 2)