Featured News 2019 Wrongfully Accused: The Problem Behind Eyewitness Identification

Wrongfully Accused: The Problem Behind Eyewitness Identification

In July of 1984 22-year-old Jennifer Thompson was alone in her college dorm room in North Carolina when an intruder broke into her residence and raped her. Determined to put her perpetrator behind bars, Thompson immediately reported the incident to law enforcement officials and they quickly created a composite image of her attacker.

As her own eyewitness, Thompson's attempt to translate her memories from the dark and traumatic night into concrete and usable information proved to have unexpected consequences. After identifying who she believed to be the perpetrator from a selection of mugshots, Thompson was reassured by officers that she had picked the right suspect. The man she identified as her attacker was Ronald Cotton. Cotton was convicted and arrested on multiple accounts of rape and burglary and sentenced to life plus 54 years. Thompson felt a small amount of closure from the conviction. After all, she genuinely believed that her attacker was caught and placed behind bars.

Thompson would later find that describing the appearance of her attacker solely from recollection ended in the conviction of an innocent man. After nearly 11 years behind bars, Ronald Cotton's case was revisited and taken on by two new lawyers who filed a motion for DNA testing. Authorities granted this motion in October of 1994. In the spring of 1995, the DNA evidence from Thompson's crime scene was reevaluated and showed no match to Cotton's. At this point, authorities realized something terrifying: an innocent man had spent over a decade of his life in prison. Cotton was cleared of charges and released from prison. The governor of North Carolina also pardoned the wrongfully-accused man.

The Problem with Our Memory

This story echoes that of countless others where innocent individuals were convicted of a crime they did not convict. In fact, wrongful conviction is so prominent that non-profits such as The Innocence Project work to fight for the exoneration of innocent individuals serving sentences for serious crimes. Eye witness misidentification is a frustrating problem because it hurts two innocent people. First, it harms the victim of a crime who thought they were finding justice in their terrible situation. Second, it harms the innocent person who had the unfortunate luck of looking like a criminal.

As of the posting of this article, The Innocence Project has used DNA evidence to achieve 364 exonerations. The non-profit’s efforts have also resulted in 160 actual perpetrators of a crime to be identified through DNA evidence. The organization estimates that about 20,000 people are currently serving time for a crime they did not commit.

Research shows that memory is not reliable and that an eye witness might convince themselves they are correct. Often, it is the reassurance provided by the authorities which reinforces an eye witness’ retelling of events. When Jennifer Thompson identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker, her error was reinforced by law enforcement officials when they told her they believed she was correct.

Solutions for Incorrect Eye Witness Testimony

Several solutions have been sought out by The Innocence Project that have been shown to decrease the problems of eye witness testimony. The most crucial change to procedures is the double-blind administration of line-ups. Today, officers showing a line-up of possible suspects are unaware of who the actual suspect is. Witnesses are informed that the officer showing them suspects is not aware of who the actual suspect, so they do not look for validation for their selection.

If you are being accused of committing a crime, contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced criminal defense attorney will fight to protect your rights and help prevent false evidence from being used against you. Use our directory to find the most experienced criminal defense attorneys in your area.

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