Misidentified: Flawed Eyewitness Accounts

"How strange it was that the man I had prayed to die would be the man to teach me to live." - Jennifer Thompson

We do lots of things on autopilot on a daily basis. Some mornings, we arrive at work without any recollection of leaving our home or taking the exit on the freeway – it all becomes automatic.  

But most of us still trust our memory. We trust that things are as we see them, and that things happened exactly the way that we remember them happening. Admittedly, even with my experience in wrongful conviction litigation, I too thought that the concept of forgetting someone’s face, especially someone you made direct contact with, was far-fetched. It wasn’t until I had an informal conversation with Nathan Maxwell, the current fellow at the West Virginia Innocence Project, that I realized just how easy it is to have your memory distorted implicitly.

Nathan and I were talking about the idea of eyewitness misidentification, an issue in a lot of wrongful conviction cases. I was drinking a cup of coffee I purchased from McDonald’s not fifteen minutes earlier. Nathan asked me if I remembered who handed me my coffee that morning. Of course I did. It was just fifteen minutes ago.

“She was blonde and fair skinned. Her hair was pulled back,” I assured him.

“What color shirt did she have on?” He asked me.

“Green.” I was positive. He asked me if I was sure, and I was.

 “Was she wearing a hat?” I didn’t remember her wearing a hat, so I assured him that she was not.

“Are you sure? A lot of fast food workers wear hats.” He prodded. That was all it took. Suddenly, as if I didn’t know that I was actively being manipulated, my memory of the woman in the drive through window changed. Once I saw her in that hat, there was no going back. Even though just a moment ago I was confident that she did not have a hat on, that confidence was suddenly nonexistent.

The difference between my scenario and so many others was that I knew that I was actively being manipulated, and my memory was still influenced. Thinking back on it months later, I still could not tell you if she wore a hat that day.

Sure, I was in no immediate danger. I would have no reason to actually remember the woman who gave me my coffee. Maybe if she had thrown it on me, I would have never forgotten her or her hat, but maybe I would have. Many people believe that when you have a significant encounter with someone, especially a traumatic one, that you don’t forget them. But once again, it turns out this “common sense” assumption is not quite right.

Jennifer Thompson was sure, too, that she remembered the man who attacked her in her home during July of 1984. In an interview with 60 Minutes, she recalls trying her best during the sexual assault to remember everything about her attacker. She was actively engaged with trying to remember every detail and marking so that she could help identify him. She would later go on to identify Ronald Cotton in a photo lineup, and again in a physical lineup. Thompson was adamant that at the time, she was 100 percent certain that Cotton was the man who brutally attacked her.

Cotton maintained his innocence amidst her accusation. He was convicted in 1985, at the age of 22, and he was sentenced to life in prison plus forty years. While Cotton was serving out his sentence in a North Carolina prison, another inmate, Bobby Poole, checked in for a crime similar to what Cotton had been convicted for. While in prison, Poole confessed to another inmate that he was the true perpetrator in the sexual assault of Jennifer Thompson.

Before being given access to the DNA evidence that would free him, Cotton fought to appear in court again before a judge and Jennifer Thompson. This time, as a part of the defense’s claim, Poole was to appear in the court room as well. Thompson claims that when she looked at him, she felt nothing. Even when in the same room as her true attacker, when side by side with Cotton, her memory still betrayed her.

It wasn’t until the Burlington Police Department turned over a DNA sample to the defense was Cotton officially ruled out and Poole implicated. Cotton served ten years in prison before being exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project. Cotton and Thompson now travel together speaking in front of lawyers, detectives, police officers, and prosecutors to keep what happened to them from happening to others.

If you would like to read more about Cotton’s story, you can visit: https://www.innocenceproject.org/cases/ronald-cotton/

Jennifer Thompson participated in a TEDx talk at Elon University that you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbCvExeNsVk 

There is also a 60 Minutes episode dedicated to Cotton and Thompson’s ordeal that can be access at: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/eyewitness-how-accurate-is-visual-memory/