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January 22, 2013

"I was certain, but I was wrong" — Jennifer Thompson


Her powerful New York Times Op-Ed page essay of June 18, 2000 is a classic.

It appeared here in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, and now once again, below.


I Was Certain, But I Was Wrong

In 1984 I was a 22-year-old college student with a grade point average of 4.0, and I really wanted to do something with my life. One night someone broke into my apartment, put a knife to my throat and raped me.

During my ordeal, some of my determination took an urgent new direction. I studied every single detail on the rapist's face. I looked at his hairline; I looked for scars, for tattoos, for anything that would help me identify him. When and if I survived the attack, I was going to make sure that he was put in prison and he was going to rot.

When I went to the police department later that day, I worked on a composite sketch to the very best of my ability. I looked through hundreds of noses and eyes and eyebrows and hairlines and nostrils and lips. Several days later, looking at a series of police photos, I identified my attacker. I knew this was the man. I was completely confident. I was sure.

I picked the same man in a lineup. Again, I was sure. I knew it. I had picked the right guy, and he was going to go to jail. If there was the possibility of a death sentence, I wanted him to die. I wanted to flip the switch.

When the case went to trial in 1986, I stood up on the stand, put my hand on the Bible and swore to tell the truth. Based on my testimony, Ronald Junior Cotton was sentenced to prison for life. It was the happiest day of my life because I could begin to put it all behind me.

In 1987, the case was retried because an appellate court had overturned Ronald Cotton's conviction. During a pretrial hearing, I learned that another man had supposedly claimed to be my attacker and was bragging about it in the same prison wing where Ronald Cotton was being held. This man, Bobby Poole, was brought into court, and I was asked, ''Ms. Thompson, have you ever seen this man?''

I answered: ''I have never seen him in my life. I have no idea who he is.''

Ronald Cotton was sentenced again to two life sentences. Ronald Cotton was never going to see light; he was never going to get out; he was never going to hurt another woman; he was never going to rape another woman.

In 1995, 11 years after I had first identified Ronald Cotton, I was asked to provide a blood sample so that DNA tests could be run on evidence from the rape. I agreed because I knew that Ronald Cotton had raped me and DNA was only going to confirm that. The test would allow me to move on once and for all.

I will never forget the day I learned about the DNA results. I was standing in my kitchen when the detective and the district attorney visited. They were good and decent people who were trying to do their jobs — as I had done mine, as anyone would try to do the right thing. They told me: ''Ronald Cotton didn't rape you. It was Bobby Poole.''

The man I was so sure I had never seen in my life was the man who was inches from my throat, who raped me, who hurt me, who took my spirit away, who robbed me of my soul. And the man I had identified so emphatically on so many occasions was absolutely innocent.

Ronald Cotton was released from prison after serving 11 years. Bobby Poole pleaded guilty to raping me.

Ronald Cotton and I are the same age, so I knew what he had missed during those 11 years. My life had gone on. I had gotten married. I had graduated from college. I worked. I was a parent. Ronald Cotton hadn't gotten to do any of that.

Mr. Cotton and I have now crossed the boundaries of both the terrible way we came together and our racial difference (he is black and I am white) and have become friends. Although he is now moving on with his own life, I live with constant anguish that my profound mistake cost him so dearly. I cannot begin to imagine what would have happened had my mistaken identification occurred in a capital case.

Today there is a man in Texas named Gary Graham who is about to be executed because one witness is confident that Mr. Graham is the killer she saw from 30 to 40 feet away. This woman saw the murderer for only a fraction of the time that I saw the man who raped me. Several other witnesses contradict her, but the jury that convicted Mr. Graham never heard any of the conflicting testimony.

If anything good can come out of what Ronald Cotton suffered because of my limitations as a human being, let it be an awareness of the fact that eyewitnesses can and do make mistakes. I have now had occasion to study this subject a bit, and I have come to realize that eyewitness error has been recognized as the leading cause of wrongful convictions. One witness is not enough, especially when her story is contradicted by other good people.

Last week, I traveled to Houston to beg Gov. George W. Bush and his parole board not to execute Gary Graham based on this kind of evidence. I have never before spoken out on behalf of any inmate. I stood with a group of 11 men and women who had been convicted based on mistaken eyewitness testimony, only to be exonerated later by DNA or other evidence.

With them, I urged the Texas officials to grant Gary Graham a new trial, so that the eyewitnesses who are so sure that he is innocent can at long last be heard.

I know that there is an eyewitness who is absolutely positive she saw Gary Graham commit murder. But she cannot possibly be any more positive than I was about Ronald Cotton. What if she is dead wrong?


In 2009 Ms. Thompson and the man she mistakenly sent to prison, Ronald Cotton, published "Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption," a book about their experience.

January 22, 2013 at 08:01 AM | Permalink


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The U. S. Supreme Court has ruled that "actual innocence" is no bar to an execution, given a procedurally proper trial, appeal, and Habeas Writ. The duty to correct egregious errors of justice falls to the executive to pardon the wrongfully convicted. Texas law prohibits the Governor from granting anything more than a single six-month stay of execution. An executive agency, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, has the power to commute or pardon. The only capital case they have elected to commute to life without parole is in re: Henry Lee Lucas (who was convicted of capital murder for a crime committed in Texas while Mr. Lucas was in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections - seemingly a pretty good defense to the conviction....). There are well documented cases of actually innocent convicts executed in Texas.

On the other hand, in the BMW of North America case the U.S. Supreme Court declared that anything greater than 10:1 punitive damages over actual damages constitutes a "bright line" rule to invoke an 8th Amendment "cruel and unusual" punishment defense.

So, you can be deprived of your life while "actually innocent" but never your money.

This goes against the "golden thread" that runs through the British Common Law (our jurisprudence is based upon the British system) - that the "presumption of innocence" mandates that 100 guilty go free rather than one innocent be wrongfully convicted. A thousand years of jurisprudence is worthless as precedent in the "Republic of Texas". Moreover, Texas has a bifurcated justice system with separate trial, appellate and supreme courts for civil cases and criminal cases. Judges facing a caseload all-criminal, all-of-the-time, quickly become inured to the process and convictions climb accordingly.

If you live in Texas you had better be really wealthy or else hope that you are never accused of a crime. The two things that one cannot avoid in life are death and Texas.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jan 23, 2013 12:34:39 AM

Thank you for posting this once again. Annually perhaps.

Posted by: Matt Penning | Jan 22, 2013 6:12:51 PM

Pardon in Texas is complicated. Unlike other states, it is not within the power of the governor to grant full pardon.

I oppose capital punishment, because we sometimes convict the wrong man. Ms Thompson's mistaken testimony stole 11 years of Mr Cotton's life. Can you imagine that mistake ending a life?

Posted by: antares | Jan 22, 2013 6:08:40 PM

There are lies, damned lies, and eyewitnesses.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jan 22, 2013 10:11:53 AM

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