Tag Archives: eyewitness misidentification

Youth=Our Future

A Happy New Year to everyone!!

On Thursday, December 21st, I was scheduled to do a presentation for students in Teacher Lance Pettis’ Criminal Justice class at Blaine High School. As I approached the school entrance, I recalled the warm reception my trusted partner – retired crime scene expert John Johnson – and I had received from his previous year’s classes. We were delighted by their interest as we navigated through a foreboding overview of wrongful convictions.

Being on my own this year, I hoped to again achieve the same level of interest. I arrived equipped with a new PowerPoint program I put together that provided an informative pictorial presentation for them.


Johnny and me last year with image of all the men on screen in background

Prior to visiting these classes, I asked Mr. Pettis to give the students an assignment; to read the entire 2nd chapter of my book titled Tragedy in Titletown. This chapter is one of the longest, filling 16 pages. It’s a detailed summarization of events leading up to the 1992 death of mill worker Tom Monfils in a Green Bay paper mill and the convictions of six innocent men two and a half years later. Having the students read this chapter allows me to focus on other important aspects such as some of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, i.e., perjury or false accusations, false confessions, false or misleading forensic evidence, and government misconduct. I then indicate how each of them affected the outcome in the Monfils case and I disclose the new evidence that has since come to light.

It’s a lot of information to take in so at about the halfway point of the presentation, we take a short breather and have some fun. This is also when we get to the last of the main leading causes of wrongful convictions; mistaken identification. I test the student’s ability to accurately identify the true perpetrator in the example below and then I sit back and watch their reactions as I disclose the answer. This is my absolute favorite part of the presentation because what is revealed never fails to blow their minds. And I know that if they remember nothing else, they will certainly remember this exercise.

The police sketch in the center represents an actual image that was televised across the country in 1995. One of the photos on either side of the sketch is the correct match. The point of this exercise is that out of the current 350+ DNA exonerations, misidentification of a suspect through the use of a composite sketch is incorrect 27% of the time, according to the Nat. Registry of Exonerations. However, the results from this one reveal a much higher fallibility rate. At least half and in some instances, approximately two thirds of those not familiar with this case, make the wrong choice.*

Oklahoma City Bomber

Police Sketch

As is typical in all past sessions, the time flew by with the students posing carefully thought-out questions during the 45-minute presentation. It was and always is refreshing to also hear correct answers to many of mine.

In the time remaining before the bell rang these students asked about likely motives of the authorities to convict the wrong person, compensation for exonerees, and if people’s rights are reinstated when exonerated. One thoughtful student wondered how they (as students) can be helpful in spreading the word about wrongful convictions. Another asked if I’d pose for a photo. I appreciated their positive feedback about the chapter with some of them mentioning how much they enjoyed it and how well they thought it was written.

I recently sat in my dining room with reporter, Eric Hagen, who writes for the Blaine edition of my local ‘Life’ newspaper. I expressed the need to educate students on this topic and to prepare them before they find themselves in a vulnerable situation. I explained to him that my outline also includes a discussion about the Miranda Warning because of the importance of students being proactive and knowing their rights as citizens, should they be targeted by law enforcement.

Find Eric’s article here.

Stat for juveniles   Brendan-dassey                                                                          Brendan Dassey   

An alarming statistic from the Innocence Project states that “65% of the juveniles exonerated through DNA evidence falsely confessed to crimes they didn’t commit.” Circumstances such as Brendan Dassey’s also suggest an increased risk of youth being wrongfully convicted simply because they are unaware that they should not talk to the police without an adult (attorney or parent) present. Research also yields that an overwhelming number of young people between the ages of 18-23 are targeted for crimes.

Innocent people fear that if they “lawyer up” they will appear guilty. In fact, innocent people are better served with having a lawyer present than a guilty person because for them, there’s much more at stake. And because innocent people also feel they have nothing to hide and want to be helpful by cooperating, they become absolutely vulnerable to trickery when accusations are aimed at them. They don’t understand that law enforcement can and will lie or become narrowly focused on them despite reasonable doubt. They don’t realize until it is too late that an interview can quickly become overly aggressive in order to speed up an investigation or solicit a confession. In all fairness, with officers under extreme pressure to close a case, investigations are done quickly. Mistakes get made. Rush to judgements occur. Lives are destroyed and fade into non-existence. Respect from those around them turns to loathing. The innocent are shunned…silenced…hidden away. And hope for many bright futures fades.

Which is why educating our youth becomes urgent…because they are our future.

To learn more about why people confess to crimes they did not commit, check out the Netflix Documentary The Confession Tapes.

*Answer to exercise:

The correct answer is the photo on the right. This is Timothy McVeigh; U.S. Army soldier, American terrorist, and the Oklahoma City Bomber. He detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in 1995 killing 168 people and wounding over 600. He was executed in 2001 for this crime.

The photo on the left is my son, Jared Manninen. He was also in the military at the time of the bombing but was stationed in CA. Could he have been the victim of a wrongful conviction had the circumstances been different? I shudder at the thought…

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…