Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Picking Cotton update, and more on eyewitness memory

Ronald Thompson and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, now friends (photo from the N&O)
Every teacher has examples that they must use, and I must use the case of Ronald Cotton when teaching about the problems with eyewitness testimony. In 2009 I posted a link to the "60 Minutes" episode featuring the case of Cotton and his accuser Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, and I recently posted on the AP Psychology e-mail list about how I use the case in class. (I'll re-post an edited version of that e-mail in the bottom of this note.)

Today the Raleigh News & Observer had two disturbing articles linked to eyewitness testimony. The first was a story about Ronald Cotton and other North Carolina men who were unjustly convicted of crimes based on faulty eyewitness testimony. I was very sad to see that despite the terrific book that Cotton and Thompson-Cannino co-wrote last year, things have taken a turn for the worse for Cotton. He suffered a stroke in July which resulted in the loss of the full use of his right arm and leg, and he has experienced significant financial setbacks as well. It's so sad to see this turn of events given that things had been so positive for him since he has been released. The other men included in the article who had been also imprisoned for years before being declared innocent have likewise suffered in their reentry to society.

The second article is the first of a series suggesting serious misconduct on the part of the district attorney in Durham, where I live. The focus is on a man who was arrested and convicted of multiple counts including robbery and attempted sexual assault during a home invasion. At one point, the police detain a suspect, bring the victims to the location where the suspect is held, and ask them together if they can identify him as they sit 20 feet away. The victims confirm that he is the perpetrator, despite the fact that he was shorter than their original description, is not carrying the money he allegedly stole, and he is not wearing the hat or bandanna that the person who broke in had been wearing. An appeals court threw out the conviction, in part based on what they refer to as the police's "use of a highly suggestive show-up procedure to identify defendant as the perpetrator of this crime." DNA evidence later cleared the man of the crime.

North Carolina made significant changes to the way that police do lineups in 2007 based in part on the Ronald Cotton case and the infamous Duke lacrosse case, but this "show up" procedure is still allowed. In a 2010 paper to the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (PDF), Michael D. Cicchini and Joseph G. Easton say that this show up procedure "makes already bad evidence even worse, and is even more likely to result in false identifications and wrongful convictions."

As promised, here is how I use the Cotton case in class:

The two videos (13 minutes each) from "60 Minutes" can be found here: (Part 1) (Part 2)

BEFORE you show this, though, I would recommend showing two clips (which also are included in the videos above, in Part 2 I think)  from psychologist Gary Wells at Iowa State. Clip one is a shaky video of someone on the roof of a building, and clip two asks you to select from a lineup the person you saw on the roof in the first clip. This person is suspected of planting a bomb. As you might guess, the person on the roof is not in the actual lineup, but that won’t stop nearly 100% of your students from choosing a person in the lineup. Powerful stuff!

  -- posted by Steve

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The BBC/Channel Four had a three part series on eyewitness testimony that involved a staged murder and kidnapping that had them try and recreate what they saw through police interviews. It is way awesome, then the lame 60 minutes version with Lesile Stall and the choppy video of the guy planting the bomb. My students always pick the right guy. The Brits do it better and even incorporate eye detection cameras in one of the episodes.