Absolutely Certain, Absolutely Wrong: A Case of Eyewitness Misidentification

By Jennifer Thompson

as retold by Candace Marra

Twenty-one years ago, in the year 1984, I was a 22-year-old college student.  I had a 4.0 grade point average, my own apartment, and two jobs.  I was proud of myself for what I was accomplishing, and I was especially looking forward to making my parents proud.  I had high hopes that I would graduate at the head of my class.

This all changed on July 29, 1984.  On the evening of July 28, I went out with some friends.  We went to an all-you-can-eat buffet.  As the evening wore on, I developed a headache and just wanted to go home.  My friend Michael took me home to my apartment.  The last thing I remember was falling asleep with him rubbing my back. 

At 3:00 am on the morning of the 29th, I thought I heard a noise.  You know how that happens.  It’s the middle of the night; you think you hear something, so you get scared.  I told myself I was dreaming and tried to go back to sleep.  But the noises didn’t stop.  I thought I heard the sound of shuffling feet.  I then told myself, it’s just Michael.  Nervously, I called out, “Who’s there?”  At that moment, I saw the top of someone’s head come towards me from the side of my bed.  The next thing I knew he was on top of me, holding a knife to my throat.

Amazingly, just a week prior, my sister and I had had a conversation in which we asked each other how we would react in the event of a rape.  She is really feisty, so she said she would scratch, kick, bite, and do whatever else it took to get away.  I told her that rapists want to be in control, and doing all that stuff would just give them the control they want, so I said that I would stay calm.  Little did I know that only a week later I would have to put that conversation into practice. 

At first, I told myself that I had merely startled an intruder.  I told him that he could have anything he wanted:  my money, my car, my credit card.  He responded, “I don’t want your money.”  As soon as he said that, I knew he was going to rape me.  He told me that if I screamed he would kill me, and I had no doubt that he would.  He then proceeded to tell me all about my boyfriend, and he described details in my life, indicating that he had snooped through my stuff and violated me in every possible way.

As the rape began, I made a conscious decision to look him straight in the eyes.  A part of me wanted to go somewhere else, as in an out-of-body experience, but I forced myself to focus.  I was going to survive, and I was going to make sure this guy paid for what he was doing to me.  I paid close attention to the details of his face.  I noted the shape of his eyes and nose.  I did my best to make out his complexion.  I knew it was a black man, but I tried to discern whether he was dark or light.  I noted the smell of alcohol on his breath. I tried to make out the contours of his face, the shape of his nose, of his profile.  When he stood, I noted how far down his hands came on his hips.  I took note of how tall he was compared to me.

About 20 minutes into the rape, he tried to kiss me.  I was too repulsed by him to allow him to do that, so I turned my head away.  When he protested, I somehow saw this as my opportunity to get him off of me.  I said to him, “I have a phobia of knives.  If you could take the knife off of my throat, take it outside and drop it, so that I can hear it clink, then I will let you back in.”  He seemed surprised, “Really?”  I nodded, and he went out the door.  I stood up and wrapped myself in a blanket.  He did not go all the way outside.

He had told me that he had come in the back door.  The back door was in the kitchen.  I now saw a potential means of escape.  He came back in, and when he came back towards me, and I told him I was thirsty and asked if I could go get myself a drink.  He said yes, and asked me to get him one too.  I went into the kitchen and turned on the light, thinking he wouldn’t go in there with the light on.  I made a lot of noise with the ice cubes, cupboards, and drawers.  I thought to myself, if I could just get 20 or 30 feet in front of him, I could escape.  Just before I ran out the door, he turned on the stereo, and I caught a brief glimpse of his face as the stereo lights came on.

I ran out the back door, in nothing but a blanket.  Within a short time, I heard his footsteps behind me.  It was 4:00 in the morning, and I had no idea where to go.  All I knew to do was run for the nearest light.  I found myself in someone’s carport.  I began pounding on the door as hard as I could.  A man answered the door.  “Please,” I cried, “You’ve got to help me.  Please let me in.  I’ve just been raped and a man is chasing me.”  He went into a panic and screamed.  His wife then came out, and said, “Oh my God, this is a college student.  I recognize her, let her in.”

After I called the police, I was told that I had to go to the hospital to do a rape kit.  This is such a humiliating experience.  To make matters worse, the doctor was irritated at being called in at four-something in the morning, and only did half of a rape kit.  As I was finishing up at the hospital, I heard the wailing of a woman whose cries sounded so familiar to me.  Her cries sounded like the way I felt.  It was the feeling of knowing you had been violated.  It was the feeling of knowing that you were no longer the same person you were when you went to bed the night before.  It was the feeling of knowing that one man had destroyed everything.  I asked the detective, “Was that woman raped?”  He said yes, so I asked him, “By the same man who raped me?”  “We think so,” was his reply.

I then went to the police station and was asked if I could provide a detailed description so they could get a sketch.  I said yes, absolutely.  I remembered the minutest of details.  The sketch artist  drew his eyes, and I said, “No, they’re a little more almond-shaped than that.”  He drew his nose, and I said, “No, his nostrils flair a little more than that.”  I was able to give a detailed description of every aspect of his face, so that in the end, when the sketch artist showed me the finished sketch and asked me if this was what the perpetrator looked like, I confidently replied, “Yes.  That is the man who raped me.”

After a short investigation, I was called into the police department to view a photo lineup.  They instructed me to take my time and told me not to feel compelled to pick out anyone unless there really was someone who fit.  It didn’t take long before I saw the man I was sure raped me.  I picked his photo out, and the police asked me, “Are you sure.”  I answered, “Yes, I am.  That is the man who raped me.”  One of the officers answered, “Very good.  That’s who we thought it was.”

Later I was called in to view an actual lineup.  Once again, they instructed me to take my time and not to feel any pressure.  But I knew right away when I saw him.  “It’s number five,” I said.  “Are you sure?”  “Yes, absolutely.”  Again, they said, ”Very good, that’s who we thought it was.”  I was so relieved that my attacker was going to pay for what he did.  He was caught, and he was off the streets.  I felt safe now.

The man from the lineup was named Ronald Cotton.  He had a previous sexual assault on his record, and he dated white women, which was considered a no-no in 1984 in the south.  In addition, his alibi was that he had been out clubbing with his friends, but his friends all denied he had been with them.  I knew, 100% without a doubt, that we had our man.  I hated him.  I wanted him to spend the rest of his life behind bars.  If the death penalty was available, I wanted him to get it.  I wanted him to be raped in prison.  I wanted him to experience the terror I had experienced.  I didn’t want him to ever get to experience the joy of getting married and having children.  I didn’t want him to ever enjoy life again.  I wanted him to suffer for what he did to me.  He had ruined my life.  Hard as I tried to move on, I just couldn’t.  My grades in school were affected.  I did not graduate at the head of my class.  I found myself frequently alienated because nobody wanted to hear about it.  And I wanted Ronald Cotton to pay.

In court, the entire case hinged on my testimony.  The other victim was not able to identify whether he was the attacker.  There was a little bit of circumstantial evidence, such as some foam from a shoe left at the scene, and a flashlight that resembled the one described by the other victim.  And, of course, the unsubstantiated alibi.  However, it was my testimony that clinched the conviction.  I remember watching my father cry with a broken heart as I gave my testimony.  This only added to my anger and hatred for Ronald Cotton.  He was sentenced to life plus 50 years for aggravated rape and aggravated breaking and entering, and even that sentence seemed to good for him.  I then went to the DA’s office, where we all drank champagne and toasted to “justice.”

A couple years later, I received a phone call.  An appeals court had overturned the conviction.  Just as I had started to heal and move on with my life, the ordeal was brought up all over again.  I was going to have to go to court and testify all over again. In prison, a man by the name of Bobby Poole had bragged to some other inmates that Ronald was doing time for the crime he, Bobby, had committed.  When Ronald asked him to confirm this, he denied it.  The other victim’s testimony was also going to be needed.  She was now able to identify that yes, Ronald Cotton was also her attacker.  Bobby Poole appeared in court, and I had the opportunity to look at him and determine whether Bobby was my actual attacker, or if it was indeed Ronald.  I was 100% certain that it was not Bobby Poole, and the other victim agreed.  Our testimonies together yielded a second conviction, this time of both rapes, and Ronald Cotton received two life sentences plus 30 years.

My life moved on.  I became very busy as I got married and subsequently gave birth to triplets, two girls and a boy.  In June 1995, I received a visit from the police officer who told me there was going to be a DNA test, and that my blood would be needed.  He explained that I didn’t have to give it right now, but that if the judge ordered it, I would have to give it later.  As a busy mom, I didn’t want to go back to court, so I told him that I would be glad to give my blood, as I already knew what the results would be.  I went to the lab that very day.

A few days later, I received another visit from the police, the one that would change everything.  They came into my house and said, “We have something to tell you.  Ronald Cotton is not the man who raped you.  It was Bobby Poole.  The DNA proves it.”  In addition, Bobby Poole had confessed.  I would like to say that I started crying, or that I pounded on the walls with my fists, or that I somehow reacted in an emotional manner, but I didn’t.  All I said was, “Oh, well, thank you very much.  Have a nice day.”  It was such a pivotal moment.  It was the moment when I was told that everything I believed to be true was wrong.  It was like hearing that God wasn’t real, or that my parents weren’t my real parents.  My world was turned upside down.  Yet all I could say was, “Thank you very much.  Have a nice day.”

I felt incredible guilt and shame for what I had done.  Many of my friends tried to help me by minimizing what I had done.  I knew that an innocent man had spent 11 years of his life behind bars.  At the time of his arrest, he was 22, and I was 22.  Now, we were both 33 years old.  He had lost 11 years of his life.  My friends reassured me by saying that he had probably raped someone else and not gotten caught, so it wasn’t so bad.  They said that people in prison get to watch cable TV, they get to work out, and they get to obtain an education.  This only comforted me for a very short period of time.  I couldn’t convince myself not to see the horror of what I had done to this man.

When Ronald was released, there was much fanfare and celebration.  He was the first person in North Carolina to be exonerated by DNA, and the 13th in the nation.  Yet while everyone else was celebrating, I was hiding.  I felt that he would now want to kill me, and I lived in fear.

In 1997, I was asked to do a documentary with Ronald Cotton.  I was shocked at the request.  “I can’t even tell my next-door neighbor what I did, let alone the whole world!” I replied.  The man on the phone was able to reassure me, so I finally agreed reluctantly to do it, on the condition that I would not have to meet Ronald Cotton, as I was still certain he would want to kill me, and I wouldn’t blame him for feeling that way.  When I arrived to the set, I kept hearing about what a nice, laid-back guy Ronald was.  I was sure that this nice guy would go into a rage if he saw me.  I had ruined his life.

Later, I watched the documentary alone in my home.  My closing words on the documentary were, “Although I know he is not the man who raped me, it is still his face I see in my nightmares.”  When I saw this, I knew that the only way I would ever heal would be if I met him face to face.  I made arrangements that we would meet in a church not far from where the rape took place.  As I awaited his arrival, I kept rehearsing in my mind what I would say to him.  What would I call him?  Mr. Cotton?  Ronald Cotton?  Ron?  And I prayed.

When he arrived, all the rehearsing went out the window, as I said, “Ronald, if I could spend every minute for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it would still not be enough to express how very sorry I really am.”  He then looked me straight in the eyes, and in an equally heartfelt manner, said, “I forgive you.”  That was the moment that changed both of our lives forever.  My healing and his healing began at that moment of forgiveness.  We talked for a couple more hours.  He had recently married and was moving on with his life.  Over the course of the next several months, we continued to communicate and get to know each other.  We have both healed from the experience, thanks to the power of forgiveness. 

I have since had the opportunity to meet several other exonerees.  The most difficult thing to do was tell them that my testimony had caused someone else to spend eleven years behind bars.  I apologized to each of them, and found that for many, just hearing my apology started a healing process for them.  So many of them said that the thing they most dreamed of was for someone to admit that they had been wrong, and hearing it from me was an immense help, even a pivotal moment for them.

The problems in this case could have been prevented.  Police tunnel-vision in their focus on Ronald, as well as their failure to properly store the DNA evidence from the rape kits, were crucial components of this wrongful conviction.  What makes this case especially scary is the fact that there was no corruption.  We all thought we were doing the right things.  The investigation was conducted honestly, yet the wrong man was convicted. 

I believe that the most important protections against wrongful conviction would be to video-tape all interrogations, to carefully preserve all evidence, and to use the double blind method of lineups.  In addition, care has to be taken to provide accurate information for an eyewitness to choose from.  When I was shown pictures for the photo lineup, the picture of Ronald was taken three years prior, and there was no picture of Bobby Poole included.  When I spoke with the sketch artist and did the sketch, I was remembering the attacker.  When I looked at the photos, I was remembering the sketch.  When I looked at the actual men in the lineup, I was remembering the photo from the photo lineup.  As a result, I was so certain, and yet so tragically wrong. 

Read more about Jennifer's experience . . .