On a warm July 1984 night, an attacker broke into the apartment of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, where the attacker sexually assaulted her. Later that same evening, the same attacker broke into another nearby apartment and sexually assaulted a second woman. At the time of the attack, Thompson-Cannino was 22 and attended college. She made a specific point to study the details of the attackers face so she could later accurately identify him to the police (Innocence Project).
In August of 1984, Ronald Cotton was arrested for the rape of Thompson-Cannino. Thompson-Cannino had identified Cotton in a police photo lineup. In a real live lineup, she again identified Cotton as the man who raped her. Thompson-Cannino was 100% positive that Cotton was her attacker (Innocence Project). The evidence against Cotton was circumstantial at best. It consisted of the positive identification by Thomson-Cannino of cotton in the photo lineups, a flashlight found in Cotton’s home that resembled the flashlight that the attacker used, and the rubber on one of Cotton’s shoes was consistent with rubber retrieved from the scenes of the crime (PBS).
Cotton was tried for the rape of both Thompson-Cannino and the second woman. The jury was not permitted to hear that the second victim had been unable to identify Cotton in a police lineup or photo lineup (PBS). At the conclusion of the first trial, Cotton was convicted of one count of rape and one count of burglary in January 1985. In a separate trial, he was again convicted of two rapes and two counts of burglary in November 1987. Cotton was convicted and sentenced to term of life plus 54 years (Innocence Project).
Cotton appealed his conviction. The North Carolina Supreme Court overturned his conviction since the trial court had excluded the fact that the second woman had picked a different man from the police lineup. An inmate had confessed to both rapes that Cotton was convicted of, but the judge refused to admit this into the trial (PBS). Cotton was retried in 1987 for both rapes. At the conclusion of the new trial, Cotton was again convicted for the rapes and given a life sentence (Innocence Project).
In 1994, two defense attorneys took over Cotton’s appeals. They filed a motion arguing ineffective assistance of counsel, as well as a motion requesting DNA testing. The motion for DNA was granted in late 1994 (PBS). A major break in the case came when the Police Department turned over all the evidence to Cotton’s defense, including the attacker’s semen (Innocence Project). The DNA sample of the rapist was tested and did not match Cotton’s DNA. The results of the DNA test were sent to the State’s DNA database, where it was discovered that the DNA matched the inmate who had earlier confessed to committing both rapes (Innocence Project).
Cotton’s defense attorneys contacted the district attorney with the results in May 1995 (PBS). Together with the district attorney, a motion to dismiss all charges against Cotton was filed (PBS). Cotton was formally cleared of all charges on June 30, 1995. In addition, the governor of North Carolina extended a formal pardon to Cotton, apologizing for the egregious mistake. He had been wrongfully convicted and had served 10.5 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Ronald Cotton’s story raises some significant concerns about the reliability of eyewitness identification. The first rape victim, Thompson-Cannino, was adamant and 100% certain that she had identified Cotton as the correct man. But as the DNA would reveal years later, Thomspon-Cannino’s identification was wrong. It is troubling that Cotton was convicted based upon a positive eyewitness identification and some shaky, circumstantial evidence. A similar flashlight and consistent rubber on shoes is insufficient to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Cotton’s defense at the initial trial should have challenged the admissibility and reliability of Thompson-Cannino’s identification. The trial judge should have disallowed this evidence from the start. Furthermore, the judge should have allowed the jury to hear the fact that the second victim failed to positively identify Cotton as the attacker and instead, identified a different man.
The Innocence Project is an organization founded by two attorneys that works to free wrongfully convicted persons. The Innocence Project has exonerated more than 300 innocent persons since its inception (Innocence Project). One downside of the Innocence Project is that it is very selective about the cases it chooses to undertake. There must be some sort of DNA evidence available for testing in order for the Innocence Project to consider taking the case. Absent DNA evidence, there is no way to prove the innocence of a wrongfully convicted individual. There are probably many persons that have been wrongfully convicted due to inadequate counsel, insufficient evidence, or a deficiency in constitutional safeguards who have no way of proving their innocence since any DNA evidence has either been destroyed, or there was never any to begin with. Thus, while the Innocence Project can help exonerate some, it does not help cases where DNA evidence is unavailable.
Innocence Project. “Ronald Cotton.” Web. 10 Feb. 2016.
PBS. “Summary of Cotton’s Case.” Web. 10 Feb. 2016.