2.5 Witness Misidentifies

2.5 A witness misidentifies her attacker
The following video includes a witness talking about some of her experiences of a rape, so do
think carefully about the impact this might have on you before deciding to watch it.
The video contains interviews with Jennifer Thompson and Detective Mike Gauldin. Jennifer was
one of the victims/witnesses in the Cotton case that is presented on the Innocence Project
website , and Detective Gauldin one of the police officers who investigated the case.
While watching the video, consider the extent to which the factors that contributed to the wrongful
conviction were under the control of the police and criminal justice system. In other words, were
system or estimator variables the problem, or was it a combination of both?
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was at college, but in the early hours of July 29th Jennifer's life was
changed forever.
Around three o'clock in the morning I thought I heard something in the bedroom, and when I
looked over the side of my bed I saw someone's head, and so I of course screamed; I said who
is that? Who's there? And this person jumped on my bed, quickly put a gloved hand across my
mouth and straddled my body and put a knife to my throat, and told me to shut up or he was
going to kill me.
In the midst of the devastating assault, Jennifer made a conscious decision - she determined to
be such a good eyewitness that she would be instrumental in securing her attacker's conviction.
I decided that if I lived through this I wanted to know the shape of his eyes, I wanted to know the
colour of his hair, I wanted to know, you know, the shape of his face, how old he was, how much
he weighed, what his voice sounded like, did he have any tattoos, did he have a scar- something
and everything that I could remember, that I could bring to the police and hopefully catch this
person and put him away for life.
After the rape, the attacker fled. Jennifer was taken to hospital by the police where detective
Mike Golding was the first Officer to interview her.
Although she was emotional and upset as you would expect any rape victim to be, she had a
presence of mind and a sense of determination that I hadn't seen before in a rape victim.
Detective Golding worked with Jennifer to create and identikit image that would be circulated in
the hope that somebody might recognise it.
We began to work through this identikit where you have mouths and lips, and cheeks and chins,
and noses and nostrils, and ears and everything; until you start putting together these pieces of
the face that you remember seeing.
Within a few days of the public appeal a number of suspects had been suggested. Their pictures
were shown to Jennifer as a photo line up.
I immediately discounted four, and you start doing the - no that's not his ears, no his ears looked
closer and that's not his nose, and that nose really looks like his nose, and his hair's too long.
Jennifer had picked out a man called Ronald Cotton. Later, police called Jennifer back to identify
the suspect at a live line-up.
I remember walking into the room and there was nothing between me and this physical line-up
but a table, like a picnic table type of thing. My knees were shaking, I was sweating, my heart
was racing.
I remember looking at number four and number five and going, mmm, and then I wrote down
number five, and I handed it to the detective.
Number five - the man Jennifer chose - was again the suspect Ronald Cotton, and based on her
strong eyewitness identification, the case went to court. Despite protesting his innocence, at the
trial in January 1985, Cotton was convicted of rape and sentenced to life plus fifty years in prison.
A year into his sentence, a convicted serial rapist named Bobby Paul was sent to the same
prison. The two men looked so alike that the guards often got them confused.
Cotton discovered that Paul had bragged to fellow inmates that it was he who had raped
In North Carolina, at the time of Cotton's trial, the practice of analysing DNA evidence was not
routine, but ten years later it had become more commonplace. Cotton, still maintaining his
innocence, asked for DNA evidence to be analysed.
The DNA did not belong to Ronald Cotton. It belonged to Bobby Paul.
Ten years after being wrongly convicted, Ronald Cotton was finally released.
I knew it had been my identification, I mean I knew that. It wasn't malicious intent, it wasn't
racially motivated, but it didn't matter because the end result was Ronald Cotton spent a third of
his life in prison for something he didn't do.
I can't tell you how many times I looked at that case and rethought it and, you know, tried to
envision what I could have differently that would have prevented it and so it was very bad.