« Sticky Lamp | Home | I am having an out of money experience »

October 13, 2010

"I Was Certain, But I Was Wrong" — by Jennifer Thompson


Thompson's June 18, 2000 above-titled New York Times Op-Ed page essay is so valuable that I have reposted it annually since its first appearance here in 2004.

Last year I featured "Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption," a book co-authored by Thompson and Ronald Cotton (below),


the man whose positive I.D. by Thompson sent him to prison for 11 years — for a crime he didn't commit.

Here's the Times piece.


    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?



Thompson's essay was a clarion call that heralded a cascade of evidence over the past decade calling into question the believability of eyewitnesses — even when they are dead certain.

October 13, 2010 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "I Was Certain, But I Was Wrong" — by Jennifer Thompson:


I have read this book, I have seen interviews, I have read this letter (maybe on this site even). And it is quite chilling to hear...I can envision the crime happening and her determination to study this man attacking her, knowing that it was probably up to her to do so.

And after the entire criminal process was done and she was finally satisfied that she did her job-she got back at this horrible man, only to find out years later she was WRONG - just horrifying and unimaginable.

She is an amazing lady and he is an incredible man. We could all learn from this story!

Posted by: kaylen | Oct 16, 2010 12:25:02 AM


Posted by: Caroline | Oct 15, 2010 1:01:38 AM

We need to get rid of the death penalty. It's cruel punishment for the executioner. (Aside from the fact that it's an act we can't "undo" should it prove to be a mistake.)

Posted by: bubbub | Oct 14, 2010 11:49:21 PM

jo "Posted by: jo | Oct 13, 2010 4:46:58 PM", Really?

Posted by: Ewe | Oct 14, 2010 9:54:36 PM

Thank you for reposting this story. It is important that the fact that "eyewitnesses make mistakes" be widely disseminated. Mr. Cotton is a fortunate man, but I suspect there are many innocent men locked in jail on the strength of mistaken eyewitness identifications who will never have the benefit of proving their innocence by virtue of DNA testing or other means. Frankly, eyewitness identification is quite unreliable, as has been reepeatedly demonstrated in controlled experiments.
And thank Ms. Thompson for having the integrity to so publically acknowledge her mistake. It must have been very hard for her, for a number of reasons. Blessings to her, and to Mr. Cotton.

Posted by: David Yount | Oct 14, 2010 12:43:27 AM

I've been thinking that I should remind you to post this story yet again. It's been going through my brain like a recurring mantra over the past few weeks. Flitting at the edges, and when I considered it, I didn't see any context to wrap such a request around.

What's important to me, is that you first posted it, I read it and had my mind expanded to include the concept of reasonable doubt of even my own senses, of my own perception and conclusions. Equally important is that you continue to post it as a reminder and as an introduction to those first-time readers of this moving tale.

Death is no fitting justice when doubt is ever-present. For me, death is nearly always not a fit sentence, and I only include the "nearly" qualifier, as I have limited experience and knowledge. To me, society is never protected by death when incarceration is an alternative.

Thank you, Joe.

Posted by: Matt Penning | Oct 13, 2010 10:48:03 PM

Study after study shows that eyewitness testimony is fraught with error. When the battle is over money, well - them's the breaks. When lives are on-the-line it is incumbent upon us to see that the justice system does everything to insure that the innocent are protected.

VA has a seven (7) day statute of limitations from the date of conviction to introduce "new evidence" of innocence in a capital case. In Tx the Governor has no right to pardon or commute a sentence- it falls to The Board of Pardons and Paroles, who have no duty to meet, much less consider a plea for clemency.

All US state & federal Courts exclude from juries sitting on capital-crime cases any potential juror opposed to, or doubtful of, the ultimate punishment. They're not called "death-qualified" for nothing.

Once we held that it was better that 100 guilty go free rather than send an innocent to jail. The previous Supreme Court has ruled that "actual innocence" is no bar to execution, given a procedurally proper trial, appeal and Habeas Writ. The Supreme Court sacrifices the innocent on the alter of "finality" and hangs its moral duty on the executive branch to grant clemency in cases of actual innocence.

Posted by: Lawlibrarian | Oct 13, 2010 6:05:59 PM

"took my spirit away, who robbed me of my soul"....hmmmmmmmm! I'm sorry but this kind of dramatic language only makes me wonder had her attacker been white, would the error have occurred in the first place? White middle class indignation that anything bad would happen to them in the first place only goes to compound thier ethnicentricism, and therefore propogating the silently held belief that 'they all look the same'[sic].

Posted by: jo | Oct 13, 2010 4:46:58 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.