In July of 1984, a rapist entered college student Jennifer Thompson's apartment, waking her, and held a knife to her throat while she was forced to submit to sex. She ultimately escaped, and the rapist entered a second apartment, that of Elizabeth Watson, where he disconnected the porch light and severed the phone wires before subjecting her to the same treatment.
What happened after that has become a case study in Eyewitness Misidentification. Jennifer Thompson, intent on being able to identify and prosecute her attacker if she lived, studied as many aspects to his identity as she could. She picked out Ronald Cotton as her attacker and in her own words was absolutely certain of her identification of him. As we will show, this was not the case, and that harsh realization has led Jennifer to become an advocate for those convicted solely on eyewitness identification.
After the attack, Jennifer gave a description of her attacker and a composite sketch was drawn. Elizabeth did not remember detail but gave a vague description of a black man in his twenties carrying a flashlight along with the knife. When shown an array of photos matching the description, Thompson picked Cotton's photo while Watson could not arrive at a decision.
After Cotton's photo was selected, police went to his home, but he was not there. A search of his house found a pair of shoes that were consistent with the rubber found at Thompson's house. When Cotton found that he was wanted by the police, he turned himself in voluntarily. He admitted ownership of the shoes but denied involvement in any rapes. He provided an alibi, and gave a blood sample to detectives, which did not match the drop of blood found at Watson's home.
When Cotton's alibi didn't hold up (his friends said they were with him on a different night; Cotton said he got mixed up, the police didn't buy it), he was placed in a live lineup where he was once again picked out by Thompson. Watson, however picked one of the fillers selected so Cotton was not charged with her rape.
During the trial, Thompson again identified Cotton as her rapist. When the defense attorney attempted to introduce evidence of the second, and seemingly related rape, of which Cotton had been excluded, the Judge refused to allow this evidence to be heard. Thus, Ronald Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison based solely on a piece of foam rubber that was simply 'consistent' with a pair of shoes owned by Cotton, and by the very convincing eyewitness identification of him by the victim who had studied her rapist in hopes of sending him to jail.
Trials and Tribulations
The suspect, along with several "fillers" or "foils"—people of similar height, build, and complexion who may be prisoners, actors or volunteers—stand side-by-side, both facing and in profile - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Police_lineup
In 1987 the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the conviction and remanded to a retrial based on the '2nd rape' evidence that the judge had not allowed. Somehow, and I can only begin to imagine how, Elizabeth Watson suddenly became convinced that Ronald Cotton was her rapist as well, even though she had not only NOT picked Cotton out of both a photo and live lineup, but had actually picked a police 'filler' in the live lineup.
Before Ronald's second trial, a prisoner came forward bringing claims that a fellow prisoner of his, serial rapist Bobby Poole, had been bragging about committing the rapes Cotton was doing time and being charged for. Poole's blood type matched the blood found at the Watson apartment. But when called as a witness, he denied both rapes, and Jennifer Thompson denied ever having seen him before.
Jennifer stated emphatically, "Bobby Poole did not rape me. Ronald Cotton raped me." Ronald was again convicted, this time of two rapes. He was sentenced to two life sentences plus 54 years, confirmed by NC Appeals in 1990 and the NC Supreme Court in 1991.
Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA): A Love Story
After the horrific second trial (whatever can go wrong...) a curious UNC Law professor by the name of Richard Rosen agreed to represent Ronald and filed a motion for DNA testing, a relatively new technology, one certainly not available at the time of the crime. The results were astonishing. Although the sample from the Thompson crime scene was too deteriorated to test, the Watson materials completely excluded Ronald Cotton as the perpetrator. At defense request, the results were sent to the State's Bureau of Investigation to test against the DNA of convicts, at which time they positively identified Bobby Poole as the rapist. Still operating on the theory that the rapes were linked, Poole was confronted by detectives, and (officially) confessed.
On June 30, 1995, after serving 10 1/2 years of a Double-Life + 54 year sentence, Ronald Junior Cotton was officially cleared of all charges and released from prison. In July 1995 Ronald was officially pardoned by the Governor of North Carolina.
But perhaps most surprised of all was the confident eyewitness Jennifer Thompson, who wrote the following excerpt in an op-ed in 2000 while she campaigned to save Gary Graham (Shaka Sankofa) from the death penalty.
In 1995, 11 years after I had first identified Ronald Cotton, I was asked to provide a blood sample so that DNA tests could be run on evidence from the rape. I agreed, because I knew that Ronald Cotton had raped me and DNA was only going to confirm that. The test would allow me to move on once and for all.
Accused and Accuser Today
About two years after the DNA results, Jennifer reached out to Ronald. She had been living with an insane amount of guilt for having incorrectly identified him and for his loss of 11 years of his life. But as soon as they met and talked for the first time, she realized what kind of a person Ronald really was. When she asked if he could forgive her for what she had done, Ronald responded that he had forgiven her along time ago.
At that moment I began to heal. Ronald taught me how to let go of all that pain; his forgiveness set me free that night. Without Ronald, I would still be shackled to that moment in time, and it would own me forever. I soon discovered that I could even forgive the man who had raped me — not because he asked me to, nor because he deserved it — but because I did not want to be a prisoner of my own hatred. (Source)
Click the image to buy the book at Amazon
From their website, PickingCottonBook.com:
Jennifer Thompson lives in North Carolina with her husband. She speaks frequently to various audiences including college campuses, law schools, judicial conferences, and state legislatures about sexual violence, judicial reform, racial bias, and eyewitness identification. She was a member of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission, the advisory committee for Active Voices, and the Constitution Project. Her op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, the Durham-Herald Sun, and the Tallahassee Democrat. Click here for more biographical information.
Ronald Cotton lives with his wife and daughter in North Carolina. He has spoken at various universities including Washington and Lee University, Universitiy of Connecticut, Georgetown Law School, UNC Law School, and the Community March for Justice for Troy Anthony Davis in Savannah, GA. With Jennifer, he speaks to various audiences about eyewitness identification, racial justice, and forgiveness.
Sources and Links
Video: Deadline w/ Tamron Hall - Saving Ronald Cotton
60 Minutes: Picking Cotton
Ronald Cotton on The Innocence Project
Ronald Cotton on PBS Frontline
Jennifer Thompson-Canino Activist Against Eyewitness Mistaken Identification
Picking Cotton: A New York Times Bestseller
Northwestern Law, Center on Wrongful Convictions: Ronald Cotton
Article written by Mike Palmer
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