This past Sunday, CBS' 60 Minutes ran a story investigating the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The piece centered on the case of Ronald Cotton, a Burlington, NC man who was charged with rape back in 1984. Cotton was convicted based in large part on the eyewitness testimony and identification by the victim, Jennifer Thompson.
Cotton wound up getting a new trial on the case when an new inmate moved into the same prison. That inmate was named Bobby Poole. He was incarcerated on a rape charge, looked so much like Cotton that the guards got them confused and was from the same town. Cotton confronted him and Poole denied being the rapist. But he later bragged about it to fellow inmates and Cotton's attorneys were able to get him a new trial. What happened at that trial? Cotton was convicted yet again, receiving two life sentences. Thompson said there was no recognition whatsoever of Poole. In fact, she says the only feeling she had was extreme anger at Cotton and his attys for putting her through it again and daring to suggest she could be mistaken about the man who had raped her.
Fast forward several years and Cotton hears three little letters in the OJ trial that give him hope. D-N-A. A very minute fragment of biological evidence is discovered and it proves Cotton is innocent and Poole did in fact commit the rape. Cotton is released from jail after serving eleven years for a crime he did not commit.
But that is just the beginning of the story. The true heartwrencher is the relationship that happens afterwards between Thompson and Cotton. They and their families have become very close. They have become crusaders for reform in investigative techniques and laws in an effort to prevent others from going through what they have been through. They have coauthored a book, "Picking Cotton," that tells their story.
It truly is a remarkable tale. The piece also has some very good material explaining what went wrong in this case and how it could be avoided.
When I was in law school, I worked for Joe McCulloch, the founder of the Palmetto Innocence Project. I can remember working on packets for Joe that we sent to all the local law enforcement around Columbia trying to get them to implement the sequential ID system and other reforms. North Carolina has actually legislated these reforms. It's time South Carolina did the same.
(The hyperlink above has the actual video if you are interested in watching).
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