Case of Ronald Cotton

Every year, the nation experiences a large number of erroneous judgments and exonerations. One of the main reasons of faulty evidence during the trial that results in wrongful convictions is victims misidentifying eyewitnesses. In the Cotton case, the legal and law enforcement authorities neglected their responsibilities, leading to the arrest and conviction of an innocent individual. The evidence that the second victim chose a different man in the identification parade and details about the prisoner who confessed to the crimes were not allowed to be heard by the jury because the court improperly accepted flawed evidence in the form of a witness misidentification process. It is important first to understand the events leading to his conviction. In July 1984, an assailant broke into two separate houses and raped the two occupants who were women. The attacker also stole money and other belongings from his victims before escaping. The incident happened in the same neighborhood and at the same night in quick succession with an interval of one hour between each ordeal (Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, & Torneo, 2009). In January 1985, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, one of the assaulted women, gave the eyewitness misidentification evidence to the jury and Cotton was convicted of one count of burglary and one of rape (Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, & Torneo, 2009). The second trial in November 1987 saw Cotton convicted of both rapes and two counts of robbery. It is then that the court sentenced him to life plus fifty-four years.

Eye Witness Misidentification

Witness identification procedure is a very crucial process that provides conclusive evidence to the court and jury during trials of serious offenses like rape, murder, burglary, just to mention but a few. The process, therefore, has to be carried out using prescribed guidelines by the law; the identification process should not incriminate the accused. In the Cotton’s case, however, the eyewitness evidence was completely flawed, and it was carried out in a biased and unlawful manner. The victim, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, was first given a photo array with six photos to identify the perpetrator. She chose two pictures from the collection; one was the mug shot of the accused, Cotton (Wixted, Mickes, Clark, Gronlund, & Roediger, 2015). After five minutes of examination, she suggested to the officer present that she thinks Cotton’s mug shot represents her attacker. The police present during the identification process, Detective Gauldin, asked the victim if she was sure about her pick and she affirmed her choice. She later asked the police persons around her if she did a good job and they confirmed that she did great. It is important to note that the detectives present during the procedure asked her leading questions that seemed to point at the victim. They did not ask her in an open-ended way how sure she was about the man she picked from the array as her attacker. The officers did not bother to take a confidence statement from the victim; all they were interested in is what she thought and not what she was sure of in her declaration (Smalarz & Wells, 2014). Therefore, Jennifer Thompson was more confident with her guess after the detectives implied that her being sure about her pick was enough evidence.

The district attorney, however, was not convinced with the victim’s lack of certainty and thus ordered the investigators to hold a second identification procedure. Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was taken to an identification period that consisted of seven men in a physical lineup. She was still not sure on who her attacker was amongst the seven people presented in the identification parade. She observed the lineup for some time and then told the officers that the culprit was between number four and five. Cotton, the accused, was number five in the physical lineup (Wixted, Mickes, Clark, Gronlund, & Roediger, 2015). The lineup was repeated under her request, and she picked Cotton as the most likely attacker. Once again Detective Gauldin asked the victim if she was certain and she said yes. The policeman did not ask her how certain she was to affirm her statement. Gauldin made some comments that were intentional and meant to confirm her pick. The detective told the victim that the police had a similar opinion to hers concerning who the attacker was in the lineup.

The defense lawyers challenged the eyewitness identification procedure because it was flawed and biased against the accused. The defense prepared to summon an expert witness on eyewitness memory to contest the misidentification of the defendant. However, the judge refused the request and allowed the victim to show the jury who her attacker was before the court.

The entire identification process that provided the crucial evidence for sentencing Ronal Cotton was inappropriate. The officers present during the procedure never asked the victim open-ended questions. The detectives made several intentional cues that suggested that Cotton was the attacker. Psychologically, unintentional and intentional signals by police officers can influence the response of the victim (Ayres & Nalebuff, 2015). Detective Gaulding, who carried out the identification procedures, knew that Cotton was the accused person. Therefore, there was no way that he would have been fair and just during the proceedings without hinting to the victim who the accused was in the lineup.

The judicial system should have ensured that the witness identification procedure was just and fair before accepting the evidence. The court ought to have requested the detectives to use the double-blind procedure in the identification process. The administration ensures that the investigator present does not know who is the suspect and the eyewitness as well is notified that the officer has no clue of the suspect. The victim is expressly told that the attacker may not be amongst the people in the parade (Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, & Torneo, 2009). The police should also take a confidence statement from the eyewitness where she is asked to explain how sure she is with her pick. Afterward, the detective present should document the initial confidence level of the witness to ensure the court receives credible evidence. Therefore, in the Cotton’s case, the eyewitness identification process would have been reliable if the police used the double-blind procedure in the parade.

The DNA Evidence

During the two trials, the court had denied the request of the defendant’s counsel to have the DNA of proof carried out. However, in 1995, the defense received two new lawyers who managed to convince the court to approve their motion for a DNA testing on the evidence collected during the trial. The convict’s semen was collected and taken for DNA testing. The semen samples from one of the victim’s clothes had been tampered with, and the test results were not accurate. However, the test results of the semen samples from the clothes of the second victim did not match Ronald Cotton’s DNA (Ayres & Nalebuff, 2015). Therefore, the test results had to be taken to the database of the State Bureau of Investigation. All the DNA patterns of convicted and violent criminals in the state are contained in the database. It is at this stage that there was a significant breakthrough for the convict when the DNA test results showed a match with those of a convicted felon who had confessed to other inmates about raping the two victims.

Ronald Cotton was officially cleared of all the charges in May 1995 after the DNA evidence cleared his involvement in the crime. It is so unfortunate that the judicial system had neglected the use of DNA testing for conclusive evidence that would have exonerated an innocent man from serving ten years in prison. In the modern world, over 50% of the wrongful convictions are caused by improper forensics and biased mechanisms for collecting evidence such as eyewitness misidentification and fingerprints data (Ayres & Nalebuff, 2015). Nuclear DNA analysis is so far the only reliable forensic technology that can provide conclusive and flawless evidence on the identification of a person. The other forensic evidence mechanisms are based on empirical observations and can easily be influenced by faulty inductive reasoning and biasedness. The judicial system should, therefore, adhere to use nuclear DNA testing for serious criminal cases to avoid wrongful convictions.

Highly Restrictive Rules for New Evidence

The court usually does not accept new evidence during post-conviction trials. However, there are some ways under which the new evidence may be admissible in court. Some of the ways include,

• Evidence that is material to the case or issues

• Evidence that was discovered after trial

• One that has a strong possibility of changing the outcome of the case

• Crucial information that could not have been discovered before trial in exercise of due diligence

In the Cotton case, the defense counsel was seeking to bring new evidence about an inmate who had confessed to the raping of the two victims. The refusal by the judge of the superior court to allow the new evidence into the case was a miscarriage of justice to the defendant (Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, & Torneo, 2009). The admissibility of the new evidence in the case would have protected Cotton from being wrongfully convicted of the two rapes and serving a life sentence.

There were several appeals by the defense counsel which were never given any hearings and this indicated a strict and unjust mechanism by the judicial system. The new information concerning the real rapist could not have been received before the trail. It was only after Cotton was sentenced to prison that he had the opportunity to hear another convict confess to the charges. Therefore, the superior court should have considered the new evidence during the second trial. The nuclear DNA testing ought to have been done immediately the defense counsel provided the information to the court and that would have protected Cotton from serving ten years of wrongful conviction (Ingram, 2014). Therefore, the rules on new evidence should not be so strict that innocent convicts do not get justice.


The law enforcement and judicial systems of the country should stick to the rule of law in their pursuit of justice. Convicting the wrong individuals is an inappropriate practice and violation of human rights. The increasing number of incarceration from wrongful convictions is a bad sign that make the public lose their trust in the judicial system. The eyewitness identification parades should use the double-blind procedures and DNA testing must be given priority over other forensic mechanisms.


Ayres, I., & Nalebuff, B. (2015). The rule of probabilities: A Practical Approach for Applying

Bayes' Rule to the Analysis of DNA Evidence. Stan. L. Rev., 67, 1447.

Ingram, J. L. (2014). Criminal Evidence. New York: Routledge.

Smalarz, L., & Wells, G. L. (2014). Confirming feedback following a mistaken identification

impairs memory for the culprit. Law and Human Behavior, 38 (3), 283.

Thompson-Cannino, J., Cotton, R., & Torneo, E. (2009). Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of

Injustice and Redemption. New York: Macmillan .

Wixted, J. T., Mickes, L., Clark, S. E., Gronlund, S. D., & Roediger. (2015). Initial Eyewitness

Confidence Reliably Predicts Eyewitness Identification Accuracy. American

Psychologist, 70 (6), 515.

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