Monday, March 09, 2009

Do You See What I See?

Last night on 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl had a story about something that is too common in the era of DNA exoneration of wrongly convicted people - unreliable eyewitness testimony. You can watch the two-part video here and here.

In brief, Jennifer Thompson was raped in a small town in North Carolina in 1984. During the attack, she tried to pay particular attention to what the rapist looked like, in order to better identify him later on. She helped police put together a composite sketch of the rapist, which looked a little like Ronald Cotton. Police brought Thompson in to see a photo lineup that included Cotton. She ID'd him as her rapist.

Cotton came in to talk to police - almost always a mistake. He had an alibi for the weekend of the rape, but it didn't pan out. He'd gotten his weekends confused, so he was lying in the eyes of police. He was arrested and put in a normal lineup, where Thompson again identified him. An officer told her:

'Well, what was said to me afterwards was, 'That's the same person you picked out in the photo lineup.' So, in my mind I thought, 'Bingo. I did it right.' I did it right,' she said.
Cotton went to trial, where Thompson ID'd him from the witness stand. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Here's the thing - Cotton was innocent. Thompson identified the wrong man, as DNA testing later proved. He served more than 10 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. The man who actually raped Thompson was later convicted of another rape before finally going to prison (where he and Cotton worked in the kitchen together).

That's really just the lead in for the two very important parts of the story.

One is the scientific explanations of how someone like Thompson can be so certain she is correct and be so wrong. Make no mistake, she was not lying when she ID'd Cotton repeatedly. She honestly thought he was the guy. Her memory, like the memory of countless eyewitnesses, just isn't all that reliable. It is also highly suggestible, which is where police practices come into play.

The other important part of the story is at the very end, where we learn that Thompson and Cotton are now good friends. He has forgiven her for sending him to prison for more than a decade. And they have joined together to raise awareness about the fragility of memory and the problems of eyewitness testimony. It's an issue that everyone should learn more about.

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