Ronald Cotton did not rape Jennifer Thompson on a sultry, summer night in July 1984 in Burlington, N.C. Bobby Leon Poole, a dead-ringer for Cotton, actually committed the rape.
But when detective Mike Gauldin showed six photographs to Thompson and later summoned her to a lineup including seven black males, she picked Cotton both times.
At first, Thompson felt unsure about two men in the lineup, one of them holding number four, the other holding number five. She asked the police officer running the lineup to order each of the men to speak the words he had spoken while assaulting her: “Shut up or I'll cut you.” After hearing number five speak a second time, Thompson just knew: “I looked at his face. He had a light mustache; his eyes looked cold. His body was long and lean. He knew to wear brown, I thought, because he knew he had been wearing dark blue the night of my assault. And he knew to wear his hair differently. It was him. There was no doubt in my mind.”
Thompson, a senior at Elon College, had intentionally stayed alert during the sexual assault, seeking identifying characteristics of her rapist. She provided a detailed verbal description. She sat with a police artist until she was satisfied with the composite sketch.
At the hospital, a rape kit examination was conducted to collect forensic evidence, and police collected additional forensic evidence from her apartment, which Thompson kept tidy. She seemed like the perfect witness from the prosecution's standpoint.
During the photo identification and the lineup, police told Thompson the rapist might not show up as part of the mix, and that she did not have to choose anyone. As far as can be determined so many years later, the only impropriety involved Gauldin telling Thompson, “We thought that might be the guy. It's the same person you picked from the photos.” By uttering those words, Gauldin unintentionally increased Thompson's level of certainty before Cotton's trial.
Another detective told Thompson that Cotton worked at a restaurant near the rape scene. A restaurant manager had called police about Cotton after seeing the composite sketch. The same detective told Thompson about Cotton's criminal record, including a prior crime involving intended sexual assault aimed at a white female. Again, Thompson felt validated in her identification of Cotton.
Cotton unintentionally hurt his own defense when he mixed up his dates during voluntary discussions with police, thereby giving an alibi that the prosecutor could disprove. When Cotton later tried to set the alibi dates straight, police and prosecutors — not surprisingly — scoffed.
At trial, the judge refused to allow Cotton's attorney to put a memory expert on the witness stand who would have explained to jurors that rape victims and other eyewitnesses sometimes make mistakes, no matter how certain they sound. The jurors paid little attention to the fact that no forensic evidence linked Cotton to the rape, and that Thompson never mentioned Cotton's scars while providing a detailed identification.
Ronald Cotton, right, pictured in 1984, was released from prison 11 years after DNA testing showed that Bobby Poole, left, pictured in 1985, actually raped the college student. AP Photo/HO/Burlington Police Department
The jurors also had no idea another woman who was raped on the same night, by the same perpetrator, had failed to identify Cotton but instead pointed to a different man in the lineup — a man who could not have committed the crime. Because the second rape victim had failed to identify Cotton, prosecutors did not immediately file charges against him for that assault.
Despite the rulings against Cotton, he refused to seek a plea bargain and plead guilty to a crime he never committed. “Despite the bars all around me, I was an innocent man. God knew it, and I knew it, and I would rather die incarcerated than admit to being the rapist they claimed I was.”
On Jan. 18, 1985, after jurors found him guilty, Cotton was sentenced to life plus 50 years.
Cotton and Poole eventually ended up in the same prison, where Poole was serving time for an unconnected Burlington rape. The first time he saw Poole, Cotton thought he looked a lot like the composite drawing that led to his own arrest. “I looked at the short hair, the thin mustache and the mouth that wasn't too wide but was full. He was light-skinned, lighter than me. And it flashed in my mind: the composite picture of the suspect in the rapes they pegged me for. . . . The guy standing in front of me looked just like him.”
Others in the prison sometimes confused Poole and Cotton, even though Cotton was five inches taller. Cotton asked Poole if he had committed the Thompson rape and the rape of another woman the same night. Poole said no, but with a look that caused Cotton to suspect otherwise.
Using a standard appellate strategy, Cotton's lawyer won a new trial on a procedural issue — the judge should have allowed the jury to hear that a second woman raped the same night by a man with the same modus operandi had failed to identify Cotton. The second trial occurred in November 1987. By then, the prosecutor had persuaded the second victim, Mary Reynolds, to accuse Cotton, on the grounds that she had been too fearful during the lineup to identify her actual rapist. Suddenly, a new trial looked to Cotton more like a hazard than a blessing.
But at the new trial, with the jury out of sight, the judge heard testimony from another prison inmate that Poole had confessed to the Thompson and Reynolds rapes. The judge also heard lawyers for both sides question Poole, who maintained he had never committed those two rapes. The judge decided the jury would not hear the confession testimony nor see Poole.
However, both Thompson and Reynolds, sitting in the courtroom, did see Poole, their actual rapist. They did not recognize him, so never wavered from their testimony that Cotton had assaulted them. After the guilty verdict, Cotton returned to prison — now sentenced to two life terms.
Then in 1992, Richard Rosen, a University of North Carolina law professor, became interested in the case. He asked to examine the evidence and obtained a court order allowing evidence to be tested using newly available DNA technology. Thompson was asked to give a blood sample, because biological material from the rape had degraded. Upset, she complied, and tried not to worry. She knew in her heart that Cotton was guilty and that the DNA test would confirm her identification.
She was wrong. In mid-1995, nearly three years after Rosen began his re-examination, DNA results cleared Cotton and implicated Poole.
Incredulous, Thompson felt extreme guilt that she had taken away more than a decade of Cotton's freedom. Two years later, working through Gauldin, she asked to meet Cotton to apologize. Both her husband and Cotton's wife expressed reservations about a meeting, but Thompson felt compelled to apologize in person, and Cotton wanted to hear the apology face to face.
After that initial meeting, during which Cotton bestowed forgiveness, he and Thompson talked long distance, then met again. Eventually, they accepted requests to speak about the wrongful conviction and the reconciliation. They also co-authored a book about their intertwined lives and today sometimes travel together to speak to audiences about the frequent role of eyewitness misidentification in wrongful convictions.
Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson, shown in 2000, co-authored a book about Cotton and Thompson's mistaken testimony. They now give talks together on wrongful convictions. Cotton has been profiled on "60 Minutes" and appeared on NBC's "Today" show. AP Photo/Chuck Burton
“Although Ron had helped me overcome so much, I still had a hard time forgiving myself for being less than perfect, Thompson says. “This was not like screwing up a recipe. The mistake I made had impacted people's lives for years, and I felt it was my burden to carry.”
Only after hearing Gary Wells, an Iowa State University researcher, explain the common nature of mistaken eyewitness identification did Thompson's feelings of inadequacy and guilt begin to fade.
Gauldin, who became chief of police in Burlington, also took to heart the lesson about mistaken eyewitnesses. Under his leadership the police department became the first in North Carolina to require sequential proceedings — which allow witnesses to see suspects in person or through photographs one at a time, instead of simultaneously — and double-blind procedures — which prevent police officers dealing with witnesses from knowing the identity of the alleged perpetrator, so they cannot provide unintentional or intentional clues.