Saturday, March 14, 2009

Innocent man jailed for 11 years forgives his accuser

Jennifer Thompson is a truly moral person who is bravely accepting responsibility for identifying the wrong man in a police lineup.

Mark Hansen, Forensic Science: Scoping out eyewitness Ids, 87 A.B.A.J. 39, April, 2001.

Nobody understands better than Jennifer Thompson how unreliable eyewitness evidence can be. Except maybe for Ronald Cotton.

Thompson is a North Carolina rape victim whose eyewitness identification of a suspect put the wrong man in prison for life. Twice.

Cotton is the innocent man who spent 11 years of his life in prison because of Thompson's mistake. And he might still be behind bars today if he hadn't been watching the O.J. Simpson trial on television in prison in 1995 and heard about a test for DNA.

Thompson, now the 38-year-old mother of triplets, was a 22-year-old college student in 1984 when someone broke into her apartment, put a knife to her throat and raped her.

Several days later, she went to the police station and picked Cotton's photo out of a lineup. She also picked him out of a physical lineup and identified him as her assailant at his 1985 trial.

"I was absolutely, positively, without-a-doubt certain he was the man who raped me when I got on that witness stand and testified against him," Thompson recalls now. "And nobody was going to tell me any different."

Two years later, though, Cotton won a new trial where there was testimony about another man, a fellow inmate who had reportedly told other prisoners he had committed the rape for which Cotton had been convicted.

But the man denied it on the witness stand. And Thompson testified that she had never seen the other man before in her life.

Nine years later, Cotton was watching the Simpson trial unfold on TV when he heard about a miraculous new test that could prove his innocence. So he asked to be tested.

And when the results came back, Thompson got the shock of her life. Cotton was innocent. It was his fellow inmate, the man she swore she had never seen before, who had raped her.

"I felt like my whole world had been turned upside down, like I had betrayed everybody, including myself," Thompson says.

But experts say they aren't surprised by her story. Mistaken eyewitness identification is the No. 1 cause of wrongful convictions, they say.

Cotton isn't angry. In fact, he and Thompson have since become friends. "You can't forget, but you can forgive," he says.

But he also counts his blessings every day. And thanks God for DNA. "If it weren't for that, I wouldn't be where I am today," he says.