Known Unreliability of “Eyewitness” Testimony

Aired March 8, 2009, and hosted by Leslie Stahl, “60 Minutes” reports growing evidence that eyewitness testimony is much more unreliable than we understand it to be. The story featured Ronald Cotton, wrongly convicted in 1984 for rape and sentenced to life and 50 years after eyewitness testimony by the woman victim, Jennifer Thompson. Jennifer was the ideal eyewitness, someone who was alert and articulate and who was self-possessed through her ordeal and vowed to memorize every feature and aspect of her attacker so that she could correctly identify him afterward to help police convict the right person. The police ended up arresting Ronald, whose features were similar to the drawing. While the evidence against him was only circumstantial, the strength of Jennifer’s identification of him in her court testimony carried great weight with the jury. Jennifer’s honesty and the strength of her resolve to do right is impressive throughout the episode as she relates how convinced she was for years that she had identified the right person. She tells how her belief was unshakable even to the point that when she later saw another man in a second trial, Bobby Poole, who was her actual attacker, she failed to recognize him although he looked very similar to her drawing and Ronald Cotton.
Stahl explores with experts how Jennifer could have been so wrong after trying so hard to identify the right person. Experts now know that human memory is fragile, malleable, easily contaminated and often unreliable. The police often use the wrong procedure in presenting witnesses with photo line-ups of multiple individuals. When the actual perpetrator is not in any of the photos, people will wrongly identify the person who they feel most closely resembles the perpetrator, because they just assume that the guilty party is included in the line-up. Once the identification is made, memory will focus upon that person and  transform him or her into the guilty party in the mind of the witness, particularly when the selection of the witness is reinforced by some indication by a person of authority to them that they have acted correctly. So, even though Ronald Cotton recognized Bobby Poole in prison as the actual perpetrator of her rape based upon her composite drawing; Jennifer did not later recognize him in court, even face-to-face.
Ronald’s ordeal cost him 11 years of his life and pain to his family. The “60 Minutes” episode producer relates that what struck her so forcefully about his case was the many chance details of it that could have so easily resulted in him not being released despite his innocence. Over the course of years there was initial evidence which could have been destroyed or discarded and not available for the DNA testing which exonerated him. His contact with and recognition of Bobby Poole was itself highly improbable and he had to act on his own to bring Poole to the attention of his attorneys. And most disturbingly, there was the level of despair Ron experienced over the years which nearly drove him (an innocent person) to murder Poole in prison and thus commit an even greater crime than the rape he was imprisoned for.

Leslie Stahl questions in the course of this episode if eyewitness testimony should ever be trusted. That is a valid question when police have only imperfect eyewitness testimony to convict individuals of serious crimes. Police were once unaware of the fragility of human memory, but can no longer claim ignorance of proper procedures and the general inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony. You can read and view the full excerpts of the “60 Minutes” episode at the “60 Minutes” website at

along with background materials. Below is a text excerpt of the “60 Minutes” episode to whet your appetite

Eyewitness: How Accurate Is Visual Memory?

Lesley Stahl Reports On Flaws In Eyewitness Testimony That Lead To Wrong Convictions

“Lesley Stahl reports on flaws in eyewitness testimony that are at the heart of the DNA exonerations of falsely convicted people like Ronald Cotton, who has now forgiven his accuser, Jennifer Thompson.

(CBS) It’s a cliché of courtroom dramas – that moment when the witness is asked “Do you see the person who committed the crime here in this courtroom before you?” It happens in real courtrooms all the time, and to jurors, that point of the finger by a confident eyewitness is about as damning as evidence can get.

But there is one type of evidence that’s even more persuasive: DNA. There have been 233 people exonerated by DNA in this country, and now a stunning pattern has emerged: more than three quarters of them were sent to prison at least in part because an eyewitness pointed a finger – an eyewitness we now know was wrong.”

“It was hot and humid in Burlington, N.C. on the night of July 28, 1984. Jennifer Thompson, then a 22-year-old college student, had gone to bed early in her off-campus apartment. As she slept, a man shattered the light bulb near her back door, cut her phone line, and broke in.”I remember kind of waking up and turning my head to the side and saying, ‘Who’s there? Who is it?’ And I saw the top of someone’s head kind of sliding beside my mattress. I screamed and I felt a blade go to my throat,” Thompson told 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl.

Thompson said the man, armed with a knife, told her to shut up or that he would kill her.

Her first thought was to offer him anything she had to go away. “‘You can have my credit card. You can have my wallet. You can have anything in the apartment. You can have my car.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want your money.’ And I knew what was gettin’ ready to happen.”

She vowed to stay alert and study him so that if she lived, she could help put him away forever. “‘What is his voice? Does he have an accent? Does he have a scar? Is there a tattoo?'” Thompson explained.

“He’s raping you, and you’re studying his face,” Stahl remarked.

“It was just trying to pay attention to a detail, that if I survived, and that was my plan, I’d be able to help the police catch him,” she replied.

After about half an hour, Thompson tricked the rapist into letting her get up and fix him a drink; she ran out the back door. He fled and raped a second woman half a mile away. Detective Mike Gauldin met Thompson at the hospital.

“The first comment I remember her making was that, ‘I’m gonna get this guy that did this to me.’ She said, ‘I took the time to look at him. I will be able to identify him if I’m given an opportunity,'” Gauldin remembered.

Asked if she had been able to pick out any distinguishing characteristics, Thompson told Stahl, “He had a pencil-thin mustache. His eyes were almond shaped.”

Detective Gauldin worked with Thompson to make a composite sketch, poring over eyes, noses, ears and lips in an effort trying to recreate the face she had seen that night. The sketch went out, and tips started coming in.

One of those tips was about a young man named Ronald Cotton. He worked at a restaurant near the scene of both rapes, and had a record: a guilty plea to breaking and entering, and as a teenager, to sexual assault.

Three days after the rape, Gauldin called Thompson in to do a photo lineup. He lay six pictures down on the table, said the perpetrator may or may not be one of them, and told her to take her time.

Gauldin said Thompson did not immediately identify a photo, taking her time to study each picture.

“I can remember almost feeling like I was at an SAT test. You know, where you start narrowing down your choices. You can discount A and B,” Thompson said.

“Oh, like multiple choice?” Stahl asked.

“Exactly,” Thompson replied.

According to the police report, Thompson studied the pictures for five minutes. “She picked up Ron Cotton’s photograph and said, ‘That’s the man that raped me,'” Gauldin recalled.

He said Thompson was sure she had identified the right man…”

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