Category Archives: Wrongful Convictions

Resemblances Are Often ‘Suspect’…

Timothy James McVeigh (April 23, 1968 – June 11, 2001) was a Persian Gulf War veteran and an American terrorist who detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. Commonly referred to as the Oklahoma City bombing, the attack killed 168 people and injured over 600. According to the United States Government, it was the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to the 9/11 attacks, and remains the most significant act of domestic terrorism in United States history.From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

No words properly describe this egregious act. It’s a tragedy that infuriated an entire nation. Did they find the right perpetrator/s? I believe so. I also believe if you ask anyone in the US you’d get the same answer. The reason we can be sure is because what led to the arrest and eventual convictions was not reliant solely on a single piece of evidence. The investigation went much further and produced tangible proof verifying guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Imagine this happening for every case.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, an artistic sketch of the bomber appeared on the news. It was shocking to me because of who I thought it looked like. Although there was certainty that the image did not depict this person, it was unsettling. It caused me to consider the implications had this person been in Oklahoma City at that time. Having only delved into the world of wrongful convictions in the past six years, this question haunts me to this day. I do believe the significance of that crime prompted the authorities to make sure they had the right offender but I am all too aware that this is not always the case. Does this mean that getting it right only some of the time is acceptable? Of course not.

I have lost count of how many times I hear people say, “If someone one is arrested, there must be overwhelming evidence to prove they were either involved in the crime or they know something.” I used to believe that to. But I’m more cautious these days. I’ve learned that what causes suspicion can be irrevalent, like innocently walking down the wrong street at the wrong time or wearing the wrong kind of clothing. Fortunately, through the help of the Innocence Project, DNA testing and other factors, we are seeing less mistakes and a clearer picture of past practices that are flawed. A lack of adequate resources to conduct proper investigations, pressure to make an arrest from both the media and communities and the worst of all, an idea that it is better to convict an innocent person than risk sending a criminal back on the streets has caused a devastating rush to judgement in too many cases. According to the National Registry of Exonerations 33% of the current 1,606 exonerations were caused by mistaken eyewitness identification. In many of those cases this single bit of evidence stood alone as sufficient enough to convict even when other factors surfaced that suggested otherwise.

A good example of what I’m talking about is the story of my friend Jennifer Thompson; a woman who was raped in her apartment in 1984. Jennifer was 100% sure that she had correctly identified her attacker. She was inches from his face during the attack and she had the presence of mind to thoroughly study it. Later, she confidently picked Ronald Cotton out of a series of photos as well as in a physical lineup. She convinced the authorities that he was her attacker. Cotton was the only suspect and the foundation of his conviction was based on Jennifer’s testimony. Later, it turned out not to be him when he was eliminated through DNA testing which actually pointed to another inmate in the very same prison as Cotton. Unfortunately the wrong man spent eleven years in prison and the guilty man went on to commit additional crimes for which he was incarcerated….in the same prison as Cotton. Not the tidy ending we take comfort in but one that happens more often than we think.

If you look at these photos, you can clearly understand how the mix-up occurred. On the left is Bobby Poole, the actual perpetrator and on the right is Ronald Cotton, the man Jennifer identified. Along with the DNA testing that confirmed Cotton’s innocence, Poole eventually admitted to comitting the rape.

Mugshots of Billy Poole and Ronald Cotton

 

Photo courtesy of www.today.com

Here are some basic facts about how lineups are typically conducted and how they are changing. The excerpts are taken from the National Institute of Justice, in an article; Making Eyewitness Identification More Reliable by Beth Schuster:

“The most common procedure is the simultaneous lineup in which witnesses use “relative judgement,” meaning they compare lineup photos to each other, rather than to their memory of the offender. This is a problem when the perpetrator is not present in the lineup because often the witness will choose the lineup member who most closely resembles the perpetrator.”

“Sequential lineups, in which witnesses must make a decision about each photograph or member before moving on to the next, prompts them to use “absolute judgement.” In other words, witnesses compare each photograph or person only to their memory of what the offender looked like.”  

As the body of research into simultaneous versus sequential methods continues to grow, some researchers working in the lab discovered that the double-blind sequential method—in which the administrator does not know the identity of the suspect—produced fewer false identifications than the traditional simultaneous method.”

At the time of the bombing in Oklahoma City, my son Jared was in the military. He was a US Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, CA and preparing for a six-month deployment to Okinawa, Japan. When I saw the drawing on TV it looked so much like my son. In fact when they finally arrested and charged McVeigh and showed his face on the news, I felt the sketch didn’t look like McVeigh at all. While working on this blog piece, I consulted Jared and showed him the sketch. He had never seen it before and was stunned at the resemblance to a photo that was taken of him while in the service. He added that it also looked like most of the guys he served with. I shared my concerns about how our life could have been altered had he been in the area of the bombing and possibly charged. He reassured me by saying, “But it didn’t happen.” He is right. It did not. But what percentage of innocents in our current prison population can take comfort in that fact?

I cannot imagine ever feeling comfortable about making a correct identification if asked to do so. This example confirms my concern. I believe that if I was a witness in Oklahoma back then and had to pick one of the photos below to match the sketch; I might have chosen the photo on the left.  What do you think?

My son Jared, Sketch of Oklahoma City Bomber, Timothy McVeigh

                            Jared                                   Sketch of bomber                      Timothy McVeigh

Wait a Cotton Pickin’ Minute…Pt 2

At this Gala, she expressed her determination to make sure a guilty criminal was securely behind bars. On that terrible night in July of 1984 when an assailant broke into her apartment and raped her, she vowed to do two things; survive this attack and study his face so closely that there would be no mistaking who he was when it came time to identify him. After she fullfilled these tasks, she was assured by the authorities that the man she singled out in a physical lineup was the same man she had also chosen in an earlier photo lineup. She felt proud that she “did it right” and for being proactive about her safety as well as for other potential victims.

Jennifer Thompson tried to move on. She got married, had children and tried as best she could to focus on her new life despite persistent recurring nightmares about the attack. It was always Ronald Cotton’s face, the man she had singled out as her assailant, who was depicted in these horrible nightmares. Then one day, she received a phone call from the detective who had worked on the case. He told her that there was going to be a new evidentiary hearing for Cotton. Rumor had it that another man Cotton had actually met in the same prison had confessed to committing the crime against her. His name was Bobby Poole. Jennifer was to attend this hearing. She became extremely angered at the nerve of the authorities to question her judgment. “How dare they?” was her response. In tow with how she felt about Cotton and despite the new evidence presented in court, Jennifer was still convinced that is was Cotton who had assaulted her. As a result, he was given an even longer sentence the second time around and was sent back to prison. Jennifer’s unrelenting hate for this man triggered incessant thoughts that he himself be raped and then killed. And the nightmares continued…

Time was not a friend to Jennifer in distancing her from this terrible event. Emotional healing evaded her. Instead, before things would get better, they would get much worse. Seven years after the hearing, a big news story surfaced as the trial of OJ Simpson was going on. Talk of a new technology called DNA was making news. Ronald Cotton heard about it and contacted the authorities to have his own DNA tested. Bingo! This DNA test ruled him out and pointed the finger at the very man who had earlier confessed-Bobby Poole! Ronald Cotton was exonerated and released. And when Jennifer found out he was being released, she was shocked and overwhelmed with “suffocating and debilitating shame” at the thought of her mistake. She had sent an innocent man to prison…for eleven years!

A new fear engulfed her. Cotton would harbor anger towards her for taking away his freedom for so many years. Jennifer eventually summoned the nerve to ask if Ronald would meet with her at a nearby church. He agreed. And she was able to express her sorrow for what she had put him through. She begged for forgiveness. Ronald told her that he had forgiven her many years ago. They became good friends.

Together, Jennifer and Ronald wrote a book about their experience called, Picking Cotton. They now travel around the country and share their story, capitalizing on the flaws of witness identification. They are involved in the legal reform of police procedures regarding how victims ID an assailant to ensure that these mistakes do not happen in the future. Watch a 15-min. clip of their story here:

In her speech, Jennifer stated the healing process began only after Ronald had expressed his forgiveness of her. She still has recurring nightmares but the assailant is now faceless. Her newfound friendship with Ronald and her ability to use this experience as a teaching tool has turned her life around in a positive way. Way to go Jennifer and Ronald! And thank you for your remarkable and courageous inspiration!

Wait a Cotton Pickin’ Minute! Pt 1

On the evening of Thursday, November 6th, 2014, my husband Mike and I attended a Benefit for Innocence Gala in Downtown Minneapolis-the largest fundraiser of the year for the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN). We were excited to be going for the third year in a row. We rounded up the usual friends and off we went. We look forward to the meaningful connections we make with compassionate people, truly supportive of those who’ve been wrongfully convicted. If ever you believe that life has dealt you a bad hand, you must go to one of these events. They take place across the country. We always leave filled with renewed hope and encouragement that we as a society can promote change within our communities. There’s no way to describe the empowerment that comes with being involved with this organization.

This year’s Gala surpassed our expectations in so many ways. We dined with two memorable young men-Oliver and Zachary. These intelligent best friends recently put together an award winning documentary about a historic Minnesota wrongful conviction murder case from 1859. It involved a woman named Anne Bilansky who was charged with murdering her husband. She was put to death despite a lack of credible evidence. The ten-minute documentary is an overview of the case. It addresses the ethics of the death penalty and the major effect it had on litigation regarding this barbaric practice. As my husband and I watched the film days later, we were amazed at the amount of research these young men did and how well they evaluated the case! They are talented and most likely headed for a great career in film. They stated they are already planning their next one. Here’s the link to this amazing documentary.

I also met the emcee for this Gala, Ted Haller. My good friend, Johnny, made the introductions. “Ted is an attorney/journalist who does feature stories for KMSP Fox 9 news here in Minneapolis,” Johnny said. We both were encouraged by Ted’s enthusiasm and concern in regard to the wrongful conviction issue because we were aware of how many in the media shy away from the controversial subject. We had a great conversation and I was thrilled when Ted talked about the prospect of telling Johnny’s and my story. Ted was, at that time, reading the recent 152-page motion filed by the Minneapolis law firm of Fredrikson & Byron, PA in regard to the wrongful convictions of our men in Wisconsin! He was intrigued.

This year I was invited to participate in the VIP reception by Liz Loeb-the new Executive Director of the IPMN. This meant I was among a few given the opportunity to meet the keynote speaker for the evening in a more intimate setting. This was a first for me and quite an honor. Ted generously offered to make the introductions. When Ted uttered my name I was delighted to hear her response, “Joan, I’ve heard all about you!”

She and I found lots of common ground. She’s an exceptional person and quite inspiring. She exudes sincerity and love and she’s so down to earth. Her story is fascinating and brings insight to a major pitfall of wrongful convictions; eyewitness identification.

This courageous woman had been a victim of a horrible rape in 1984. She was 100% sure of the identity of her assailant. But there’d be a new twist to her life years later when she learned that DNA had ruled this assailant out…

To be continued…