Thursday, August 14, 2008

Eyewitness ID:Part 1-Mistakes can be costly but Redemption is Priceless

Many of you familiar with Eyewitness identification issues are familiar with the following names-Jennifer Thompson, Ronald Cotton, and Bobby Poole. In 1984, Jennifer Thompson, a white woman, was sexually assaulted at knife-point in her college apartment by a black man. She attempted to memorize her attacker's face so that she would be better able to identify her attacker when the time came. Ms. Thompson was finally able to escape her attacker and reported the attack to police. Ms. Thompson assisted police in drawing a composite sketch and picked him out of a line-up. She later identified Ronald Cotton again in a courtroom, in not just one trial but two. In the second trial, a man named Bobby Poole, who was serving a sentence with Ronald Cotton, claimed that he had attacked Ms. Thompson; however, Ms. Thompson identified Mr. Cotton in the second trial and he was sentenced to two life sentences.

In 1995, eleven years after the original attack, Ms. Thompson learned from detectives that Ronald Cotton had been exonerated by DNA testing. Mr. Cotton was released from prison and Bobby Poole plead guilty to the rape of Ms. Thompson. Ms. Thompson-Canino (her married name) met with Mr. Cotton and has become an outspoken advocate for eyewitness identification reform. Ms. Thompson-Canino and Mr. Cotton have even teamed up and co-authored a book about how this dastardly mistake happened and how it can be avoided in the future.

As noted by the Innocence Project blog: Social science research has shown that eyewitness misidentifications are more likely to happen when the perpetrator and witness are of different racial backgrounds. And statistics on the 218 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing to date support the evidence. More than one-third of these wrongful convictions were caused by a cross-racial identification. Investigation of all aspects of an eyewitness, especially cross-racial identifications, is critical.

Look for the book by Ms. Thompson-Canino and Mr. Cotton early next year! Kudos to both of these individuals for their honesty in facing these trying circumstances and having the courage to share their personal experiences with the rest of us so we can learn from our collective mistakes about the reliability (or lack thereof) of eyewitness identifications.

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