Posts Tagged ‘Ronald Cotton’

Today in Wrongful Conviction History: June 30

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 30, 2016 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

Happy exoneration anniversary Ronald Cotton and Lawrence McKinney!

Ronald was exonerated in North Carolina in 1995 with help from the Innocence Project. Following his exoneration, he became friends with Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, the victim who mistakenly identified him. They now travel around the country together to spread awareness about wrongful convictions and advocate for reforms to the criminal justice system.


Lawrence was exonerated in Tennessee in 2009 also with help from the Innocence Project. An article about Lawrence was recently posted to IPF’s blog, and can be accessed here.


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News Roundup From Around the Nation

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 18, 2013 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

Legislative action passed in California last week will improve the process by which wrongfully convicted Californians will receive compensation for their time served. Senate Bill 618 will streamline the process allowing those who are exonerated to receive their funds quicker and with less hassle. The Bill’s author, Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said “[t]his effort helps prevent the state’s faulty administrative process from perpetrating yet another wrong on these innocent individuals who deserve and need our help to get back on their feet and on with their lives.” For more information visit the California Senators news page here.

Recently, the wrongfully convicted man Carl Chatman was released from prison after serving nine years for a rape he did not commit. Many citizens have expressed outrage at the lack of response from the justice system in regards to Chatman’s accuser. The woman who accused Chatman of raping her had a previous experience in which she accused another man of the same crime. Unfortunately, Mr. Chatman’s situation is not a unique one. Due to the statute of limitations regarding perjury in Illinois, Chatman’s accuser cannot be punished. For more information about Carl Chatman visit the Chicago Sun-Times.

Barri White, a wrongfully convicted man, served six years in high-security jail for the murder of his girlfriend in 2002. In 2005, the BBC investigated his case and found the forensic evidence used to convict him was false and his case had been one of false accusations and demonization. Mr. White stated “I am still fighting, I have had enough of fighting, I deserve a life back. Getting compensation and an apology from the police, that would be my justice. It was six years of my life, my whole 20s, pretty much. They’re supposed to be the best years of your life but I was rotting in jail. Nothing can make up for that. No amount of money is going to bring my six years back.” The BBC program ‘Life after life: Barri and Keith’s story’ aired Monday Sept. 16th in the UK and will be available later online. Information can be found at the BBC.

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Canino

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Canino

Ronald Cotton was mistakenly identified and wrongfully convicted of raping Jennifer Thompson-Canino in 1984. Cotton was exonerated in June 1995 after DNA testing proved he was not the rapist. In an unusual turn of events, he and Jennifer have become friends and often appear together talking about wrongful convictions and incarceration. The two have written a book, “Picking Cotton“, and are to the keynote speakers at the centerpiece of Miami University (of Ohio) Regional Campus’ upcoming Criminal Justice Week. More information about the talks can be found at the Journal News.

They are also scheduled to be in Jacksonville at both of the Florida State College campuses in March 2014.

In Louisiana recently an exonerated man who was cleared of rape charges finds himself in court again. Darrin Hill, a 47 year old man who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, had been in prison for more than ten years for a rape he did not commit. His accuser pointed him out in a lineup and he was convicted quickly. Over the past 13 years Hill had been in and out of mental hospitals and jails. In 2010, a sexual assault kit that was used by doctors to examine Hill’s accuser was found by staff members of the federal National Institute of Justice-funded Orleans Parish Post-conviction DNA Testing Project. DNA testing revealed that Hill’s DNA was not present but rather the testing revealed the DNA of another man. Hill was exonerated with the help of Innocence Project New Orleans and charges were dropped. Now Hill has to face his accuser again as she refutes her earlier claim that he was her rapist. More information can be found at The Advocate.

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NPR Discusses Life after Exoneration – Impacts to Exoneree & Victims

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 22, 2013 @ 11:43 AM — Comments (0)

NPR’s Talk of the Nation discussed Life after Exoneration, For the Victims on Both Sides on April 15th. The segment included several individuals who have experienced the effects of a wrongful conviction – those who have been wrongfully imprisoned and the victims and victim’s family of the original crime in which someone was wrongfully convicted. After years of dealing with wrongful convictions, these two sides of an exoneration are starting to discuss one thing – reform.

The first guest was Sahreef Cousin who spent years on death row in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for a crime he did not commit. He discussed his case for a short while, but his conversation mainly focused on his life after exoneration. He stressed the idea of a support system for an individual that has been wrongfully convicted. Without his family, Cousin said he may have fallen victim to homelessness or drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately the system in Louisiana does not provide much assistance to those whose convictions who have been overturned. Cousin has joined together with other exonerees to create Resurrection After Exoneration (RAE). Because the state does not provide an approach to help the wrongfully convicted, the organization focuses on exonerees helping other exonerees in the aftermath of a wrongful incarceration. The RAE page states,

“RAE’s exonerees can now access individual counseling, educational opportunities, and financial and computer literacy training.  Instead of working for free for the prison system, we are working together to help each other, building our solidarity. Above all, we are positioning ourselves as advocates for criminal justice reform, speaking about our experiences at events and venues nationwide.”

Organizations such as RAE helps wrongfully convicted individuals re-adjust to a society that has changed significantly during their incarceration. The Innocence Project of Florida was the first innocence project in the U.S. to employ a full-time social worker, who works closely with exonerees before and after their exoneration in an effort to help ease the transition. The support systems are crucial to a successful reintegration into a life left behind.

The wrongfully convicted are not the only victims – a wrongful conviction affects families of the falsely accused as well as the victim and the victim’s family.

Jennifer Thompson was assaulted in her home in 1984. When law enforcement brought in Ronald Cotton as a suspect, Thompson identified Cotton as her attacker. Eleven years later, Ronald Cotton was exonerated for Thompson’s rape as DNA evidence proved he did not commit the crime. In the NPR piece, Thompson describes how difficult it was for her to face reality – her eyewitness account had not only wrongfully convicted an innocent man but had also cost him 11 years of his life that he would never gain back.

In an unusual situation, Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton have become friends and often speak about their story. Together Thompson and Cotton created a dual-memoir, Picking Cottonwhich not only discusses the case in 1984 but also describes the effect of the eyewitness identification on both parties. Thompson stated to NPR,

 “I also work with victims when they discover that the person that they ID’ed or the family members that they thought that killed their loved one, the guilt that they suffer and the shame that they suffer.

And it’s – it truly is reopening, like, all the pain and the trauma and the hurt and the fears and everything that you thought that you had worked through. It just starts all over again. But then on top of that, the reality is that you know that you somehow were a part of taking away someone’s life and their freedom and changing their families.”

A wrongful conviction is devastating to so many people. Members of the Innocence Network and others are beginning the dialogue to help everyone impacted by a wrongful conviction – the exoneree, the victim and their families.

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Eyewitness Misidentification: The Most Unreliable Form of Evidence

Alejandra de la Fuente — November 28, 2012 @ 11:06 AM — Comments (0)

Between 1977 and 1979 the Bird Road Rapist haunted State Road 976 in Florida, attacking over 25 women.

In 1980 Luis Diaz, a husband and father of three, was named the Bird Road Rapist and convicted of eight charges of rape. The identification and testimonies from eight victims landed Diaz with multiple life sentences.

During the 26 years he was imprisoned, Diaz maintained his innocence and was adamant that he was innocent of all charges. As his story began to travel, suspicions about the case began to surface, notably because Diaz didn’t match the original description given by the witnesses.

Even though two witnesses recanted their statements, it wasn’t until 2005 that Diaz was exonerated as a result of DNA testing.

“Eyewitness misidentification is the most unreliable form of evidence; however, it’s the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions, accounting for 75 percent of convictions that have been overturned by DNA Evidence.”  -Innocence Project

More than a third of the cases with eyewitness testimony involved multiple eyewitnesses. In Luis Diaz’s case, eight women identified him as their attacker, and all eight were wrong.
Exoneree Misidentifications

Research and Science

In most criminal cases, an eyewitness is crucial to the outcome of the trial. A strong witness could essentially lead to a win. However, the research has shown that many inaccuracies lie within the practice.

During the past 30 years, psychologists have found several variables that contribute to eyewitness misidentification.  Here are a few of their findings:

Estimator vs. Systematic Variables

Gary A. Wells, an American psychologist, has conducted extensive research on eyewitness memory and identification. His Applied Eye-Witness Testimony research, in which he differentiates estimator and systematic variables, has been highly cited and used to further understand the errors of eyewitness identification.

Estimator Variables are aspects of eyewitness identification that can’t be controlled by the criminal justice system. It includes where the crime took place, visibility, and if a weapon was present during an assault. Research has shown that victims tend to focus more on the weapon than the assailant’s face during an attack.

Another major estimator variable is race. It has been noted that it’s more difficult to identify a stranger of a different race than one’s own. For example, white Americans have more trouble identifying black Americans than they do whites and vice versa. The reasoning relies more on exposure to other races rather than prejudices.

Systematic Variables are aspects that can be controlled by the criminal justice system. It includes the way lineups are conducted, how police interact with the witness, and other identification procedures. The research behind systematical variables is far more advanced than estimator variables because it is more valuable to understand what the legal system can do to prevent misidentification.

Controlling Systematic Variables

The U.S Department of Justice released Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement  in 1999 that could help improve the facilitation of identification procedures. The guide suggests how investigators should conduct themselves and the investigation from initial report of the crime to the documentation of line up results.  The research conducted has made an impact that has lead to some changes; however, in order to fully control systematic variables, there are many reforms still needed.

Sequential vs Simultaneous Lineups

Sequential lineups are conducted when the witness is shown one member of the lineup at a time, whereas, in simultaneous lineups all members are presented at the same time. Research has found less errors are made when a sequential line up is administered.

A negative factor eliminated with sequential lineups is relative judgement.  During lineups witnesses tend to compare lineup participants with one another instead of their memory of the assailant. This leads the witness to choose a person who resembles their assailant more than the others, but not the person who resembles the assailant in their memory.

Eliminating Biased Lineups

There are many different elements that contribute to a biased lineup such as line up size, fillers, and who administrates it. Luckily, there are solutions that can eliminate most biases that can lead to a misidentification.

“A lineup is biased when a witness with a poor (or absent) memory is able to guess the identity of the suspect at a rate greater than chance expectation” -Roy S. Malpass and Colin G. Tredoux

A correct lineup size and arrangement is critical to achieve a non-biased line up. The Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement suggest a minimum of five fillers during a lineup. A filler is a person who is not a suspect but is used in a lineup to eliminate errors. All fillers should match the witness’s description. A lineup will become biased when the suspect stands out among all the other members participating.

Double Blind Administration

History has shown that there are some officers of the law who are completely bias in their line of work; however, this isn’t true for all police. Even the most honorable officer can influence a witness without intentionally doing so.

Wells first suggested double blind lineups in 1988; both scientists and the Innocence Projects around the country agree it’s one of the best way to eliminate biases.

A double blind administration is one where the person administering the lineup has no idea who the suspect is. Sometimes detectives can send nonverbal signs (a smile or a frown) to a witness during the procedure and is completely unaware that he is doing so.

In a double blind the lineup, most of the nonverbal communication will be eliminated because the administrator is as unaware as the witness that the suspect may or may not be included in the lineup.

Picking Cotton

In 1985 Ronald Cotton was convicted on two counts of rape and two counts of burglary. He was sentenced to 54 years in prison.

One of his victims, Jennifer Thompson,made it a priority to study her assailant’s face during her attack. She wanted to to memorize as much about him as possible so when the time came, she would be able to identify him.

However, just like in the Diaz case, Thompson was wrong and DNA evidence is what finally proved Cotton’s innocence.

“I had contributed to taking away 11 years of this man’s life, and if indeed we had been wrong–I felt so bad.” -Jennifer Thompson

Even after it was proven that Cotton was innocent and the real perpetrator, Bobby Poole, was identified, Thompson still had difficulties accepting the fact that Cotton wasn’t her attacker.

“I don’t know. The DNA tests, the science tells me that we had the wrong guy. It was Bobby Poole. Ronald Cotton says it is not him, it was Bobby Poole. They do look very similar, it is almost frightening how similar they look to each other… I don’t know. I really don’t know. I have to accept the answer that has been given to me and put faith in our system.”

Bobby Poole            Ronald Cotton

Today, Thompson and Cotton travel the United States pushing for legal reforms. They have published a book together, Picking Cotton, which goes in depth about the experiences of both authors.

A Step Forward for Florida

In Florida eyewitness misidentification was a contributing factor in 10 out of 13 (77 percent) of the DNA exonerations, two points higher than the national average.

On Dec. 29, 2011, the Committee on Standard Jury Instruction in Criminal Cases proposed a set of instructions to be given to jurors on eyewitness identification. The proposal was adopted by the Florida Supreme Court on Nov. 21, 2012.

Instructions are to be given to jurors if eyewitness identification is a disputed issue and if requested. Jurors are asked to consider the credibility of the witness by questioning any inconsistent identifications made by the witness, if the difference in the offender’s and eyewitness’s race or ethnic group may have affected the accuracy of the identification, whether the identification was based on the witness’s memory or a result of influences or suggestiveness, and six other factors.

When the proposal was made, the Innocence Project of Florida filed comments pointing out the inadequacies of the instructions.The comment filed reads:

While the committee’s proposed jury instruction touches on a number of important considerations for a jury evaluating eyewitness evidence, the proposed instruction is inadequate in two principle ways: (1) it is not a cautionary instruction as it doesn’t warn the jury of the dangers inherent in eyewitness evidence, nor (2) does it provide any comprehensive guidance on how jurors should weigh certain factors arising in cases with eyewitness evidence.

Although there is more that can be done, IPF’s CEO, Mike Minerva, acknowledges that this is a step in the right direction.

Your Thoughts

The science and facts prove that convicting a person solely on an eyewitnesses identification and testimony can be faulty. Yet, people are still are convicted based on one person’s identification. What changes to eyewitness identification do you think should be implemented in order to prevent innocent people from being imprisoned?

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