CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Race sometimes a problem in eyewitness IDs

NEW YORK In the midst of being raped, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino told herself to pay attention to details that would allow her to identify her attacker.

She was able to give police in North Carolina a description that led to a sketch of the suspect. Then she identified a man from photographs, picked him out of a lineup and told jurors she was certain he was the rapist.

That man, Ronald Cotton, received a life sentence and spent more than 10 years in prison before DNA testing cleared him of the crime.

Now victim and the innocent man she helped convict are writing a book together.

Thompson-Cannino, who is white, had mistakenly picked out one black man; another was guilty of the crime.

"Between the composite sketch and the photo identification, I had messed it up," she said, recalling the 1984 rape and its aftermath. "By the time I got to the physical lineup, Ron Cotton had become my attacker and that was that."

And as she came to learn, she was not the only one to make a mistake so devastating that it deprived someone else of his freedom.

Since 1991, 218 people have been exonerated through DNA testing, and in more than three-quarters of the cases, mistaken eyewitness identifications were crucial in the wrongful convictions, according to The Innocence Project, a legal group that has sought genetic testing and led the charge to free innocent inmates.

Of those, nearly half, roughly seven dozen, involved a person of one race wrongly identifying someone of a different color.

Even people with training in law enforcement confront the difficulty of accurate identifications. Boston Police Sgt. Gregory Gallagher, who is white, identified Stephan Cowans, who was black, as the man who shot him twice with Gallagher's own police-issue gun in 1997.

Several years later, testing on a sweat shirt, cap and glass that the suspect wore or touched ruled out Cowans as the shooter. His case was also plagued by misidentification of a fingerprint.

Cowans was released from prison after serving 5 1/2 years. He was found shot to death in his home last year. [Mark Godsey]

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