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  • Writer's picturePeter Lindstrom, Esq.

Falsely Accused of Sexual Assault Because of Misidentification: The Ronald Cotton Story



Background


In July 1984, a young North Carolina man named Ronald Cotton was convicted of rape and burglary. The primary evidence? An eye-witness identification by the victim, Jennifer Thompson, who was completely certain Cotton was her assailant. Cotton was adamant that he did not commit the crime. But his alibi story was immediately disconfirmed. We now know that Cotton just got his weekends mixed up and he was talking to the police about a different day. But this mix-up costed Cotton dearly. Cotton was sentenced to life in prison plus fifty-four years, a sentence echoing with a finality that seemed undeniable at the time.


Little Evidence Outside of Identification


However, Cotton's case was riddled with the kinds of issues that we, as defense attorneys, are trained to scrutinize. There was a glaring lack of physical evidence — no definitive traces of him were found at the scene. The identification procedures used were suggestive and unreliable, aspects often challenged in court due to the high risk of misidentification. Yet, the absolute certainty of the victim's testimony overshadowed these deficiencies in the eyes of the jury. Here, we see the embodiment of one of the most challenging aspects of criminal defense: piercing the veil of a victim's certainty.


Mistaken Identification


Mistaken identification is a contributing factor in 27% of wrongful convictions. People are generally overconfident about how easily they can identify stranger they observed only briefly. The accuracy of identifying someone goes down when you are asked to cross race identify someone. But it’s difficult to argue with someone who claims they are certain about identification. And juries frequently cast their verdict in favor of the certain witness.


DNA Testing


Cotton's defense did what they could with what they had, but it wasn't enough. The appeals process trudged along slowly, as it often does, with little hope of reprieve. That is, until DNA testing emerged as a possible path to exoneration. When Cotton's case was finally approved for this testing, the results were staggering: he was not the source of the evidence found at the crime scene. The same test also identified the true perpetrator, a man who had committed similar crimes in the area and was known to law enforcement.


Exoneration


In 1995, after 11 years of wrongful imprisonment, Ronald Cotton was exonerated. His freedom was restored, but the years lost, the relationships strained, and the emotional and psychological toll could never be fully recovered. Cotton's story had a profound impact, not just on himself and the victim, Jennifer Thompson, but on our understanding of memory and eyewitness testimony. It led to reforms in how lineups are conducted and how evidence is collected and preserved. It sparked discussions about compensation and assistance for the exonerated, who often re-enter society with little more than the clothes on their backs. Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson co-authored a book together about this incident that transformed both of their lives.


Takeaways for the Falsely Accused


The Ronald Cotton case highlights the need for proper identification procedures and the need to challenge the process when the procedures aren’t followed. But even when procedures are followed, it’s possible for false identifications to occur. Something that’s imperative if you are being investigated but have not been charged is that you speak to a criminal defense attorney. Walking into a police station to give a statement without being prepared can be a disaster like what occurred in the Ronald Cotton. A skilled attorney will prepare you and help you avoid mistakes. It was an innocent mistake to get your dates mixed up when telling the police where you were on the day of the incident. But they used that information against Cotton at trial.


If you are accused of sexual assault in Minnesota, contact Subzero Criminal Defense and we can begin working on your case as soon as today (651-248-5142).

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