Monday, December 14, 2015

Witness Misidentification: Exonerated by DNA Evidence After 11 Years for a Rape He Didn't Commit

I recently had the pleasure of talking to a lifelong friend who now works for The Innocence Project. The organization seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing. They also work to change criminal justice policies that contribute to such wrongful convictions. Since their founding, they have already exonerated 334 individuals; their clients have served an average of 14 years before being released. Many of the crimes they investigate are sexual assaults.
I have countless public health colleagues who are passionate about ending sexual violence. They are advocating for a culture of consent, fighting to change sexist notions and skewed views of masculinity, campaigning against the shame and stigma that many experience when they come forward about an assault, and working to help victims heal from the trauma of sexual violence. They are rightly angry that anyone has to experience this form of violence and that those who do may be deprived of the respect, care, and justice they deserve. This is an extremely important public health topic.

But what happens when a real crime has been committed, yet the wrong perpetrator is identified?

Approximately 82% of rapes are committed by an individual known to the victim. In these cases, witness misidentification is typically not an issue. But in the other 18% of cases, the assault may be the only instance when the victim sees their attacker, and they must rely on their memory of the traumatic event if and when there is an opportunity to identify the perpetrator.

My friend shared with me the story of Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson. Thompson mistakenly identified Cotton in a 1984 lineup, feeling certain that his was the face of her rapist, a face she had painstakingly studied during the commission of the crime in the hopes of catching the man if she lived through the experience. In 1995, however, new DNA technology showed that Cotton was innocent and identified the real perpetrator, Bobby Poole. At that time, Poole was already in prison at the same facility as Cotton for other crimes he had committed. Thompson was shocked; she had been so sure.

Cotton                                            Poole

After Ronald Cotton's release, Cotton and Thompson became friends and have worked together to educate the public about wrongful conviction and to advocate for criminal justice reform. They even wrote a book together called, "Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption."

My friend's passion for the issue and recanting of this true story piqued my interest, and I later watched the 60 Minutes episode about their experience. It is truly powerful.

This is not a story about false accusation due to a made-up story. Jennifer Thompson was raped. And it is not that Thompson was intentionally misidentifying her attacker. Rather, in a way, her memory was tricked when she initially saw a photo lineup that included Cotton and not Poole and noticed some key similar features, such as the angle of Cotton's eyebrows. (Cotton says that other inmates even sometimes confused he and Poole and called one by the other's name.) When Thompson picked Cotton out again in an in-person lineup a short time later, his face was cemented in her memory. Even at Cotton's re-trial in 1987 (before the DNA evidence surfaced), when Poole was in the court room due to a fellow convict's testimony that Poole had admitted to the rape, Thompson did not recognize Poole's face; she was still convinced Cotton was the perpetrator, and he was convicted a second time.

One of the most interesting and telling quotes in the 60 Minutes segment comes from the detective in the case. "Law enforcement wasn't schooled on memory. We weren't schooled in protecting memory, treating it like a crime scene, where you're very careful and methodical about what you do and how you use it. We weren't taught that in those days." (6:40 into the Part 2 video below)

I highly recommend watching the below 60 minutes episode. Not only does it tell the story of Cotton and Thompson, but it also goes into some very interesting scientific experiments on memory that will change the way you view eyewitness testimony.

60 Minutes "Eyewitness Testimony" Part 1

60 Minutes "Eyewitness Testimony" Part 2

While public health seeks to prevent sexual violence in the first place and fights for changes in the public discourse to create a culture of believing and empowering victims, my hope is that we not forget to promote true justice for both the Jennifer Thompsons and the Ronald Cottons of the world.

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