Mistaken Identification is the Number One Factor Leading to Wrongful Convictions

Of the first 77 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence, 65 resulted from witness error.

CASE STUDY:  Ronald Cotton

In July of 1984 Jennifer Thompson of North Carolina was threatened with a knife and raped in her apartment by an unknown assailant.  Determined that she would survive the attack and would see to it that the rapist went to prison, she studied his features:  his hairline, voice, mannerisms, weight and height.

She helped the police with a composite sketch following the attack.  A few days later she selected a picture of Ronald Cotton from a photo array of seven to eight photographs at the police station.  The police confirmed her choice with the words "We thought this might be the one."  Still later she identified Ronald Cotton from a physical lineup.  Her selection of Mr. Cotton was less than certain, as she at first wavered between him and another individual in the lineup.  But after identifying Mr. Cotton, the police assured her with the statement "That's the one you picked out in the photo." 

Over time Ms. Thompson's confidence in her identification grew.  In fact, through the course of the trial and years later, she stated that every time she relived the night of the rape, she saw Ronald Cotton's image in her mind.  Mr. Cotton was given a life sentence.

Nearly eleven years later, when DNA evidence exonerated Mr. Cotton and proved the guilt of a man by the name of Bobby Poole, Jennifer Thompson said that she would still see Ronald Cotton's face, and not Bobby Poole's, whenever she thought of the rape.  She had difficulty erasing Ronald Cotton's image from her memories of that traumatic night, despite the conclusive scientific evidence that Bobby Poole was the actual rapist. 

The jurors gave considerable weight to Jennifer Thompson's eyewitness account.  A very determined 22-year-old woman, she was a college student with a 4.0 grade point average.  Her testimony was also viewed as credible because she had studied her attacker's features for several minutes.  She was absolutely certain that she had accurately identified the rapist.

Jennifer Thompson's experience has been duplicated again and again by incredible amounts of research in the field of eyewitness identification.  Ms. Thompson's assertion that she saw images of Ronald Cotton whenever she thought about the rape is known by psychologists as "unconscious transference."  This is the mistaken identification of a person who was seen in one setting with another person who was seen in a different setting.  Through the photo spread, lineup, and trial, Ms. Thompson's mind incorporated Ronald Cotton into her memories of the rape. 

The fact that Ms. Thompson was confident at the trial with her identification of Mr. Cotton was not at all indicative of her reliability as a witness.  She had been told by the police that she had selected a photo of their suspect, and her identification had been confirmed by the police following the lineup.  Research demonstrates that eyewitnesses' confidence in their memories of a crime will often become stronger over time, even when those memories are entirely erroneous. 

In addition, research in eyewitness identification involving strangers shows that 1)The presence of a gun, knife or other weapon reduces the reliability of eyewitness accounts.  During a crime, witnesses are more likely to focus on any weapon than on the culprit's characteristics.  2)Memory is not stored like a videotape.  Memory can be altered over time without one being aware of the transformation.  3)Stress can cause inaccurate memories to be stored at the time of the crime.  In crimes staged by researchers, eyewitnesses have been known to significantly confuse the characteristics, words, and actions of the "perpetrator."  4)When selecting a picture from a police officer's photo spread, eyewitnesses often assume that the police already know who committed the crime and that the real culprit's photograph is included.  5)There is a significant decrease in memory of an assailant's features twenty-four hours after a crime.

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Click here to learn more about Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton.