Eyewitness: How accurate is visual memory? | 60 Minutes Archive

Eyewitness: How accurate is visual memory? | 60 Minutes Archive

Jennifer Thompson's Case

  • In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was raped in her apartment in Burlington, North Carolina.
  • She provided a detailed description of her attacker and helped create a composite sketch.
  • Ronald Cotton was falsely identified as the perpetrator and convicted based on Jennifer's testimony and circumstantial evidence.
  • Cotton spent 11 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him and implicated the real rapist, Bobby Poole.
  • Jennifer was shocked and devastated when she realized her mistaken identification.

Eyewitness Testimony Issues

  • Eyewitness testimony is often unreliable and highly influential in trials.
  • Factors like reinforcement and memory contamination can alter a witness's memory and increase their confidence in incorrect identifications.
  • To ensure accuracy, an independent person should administer lineups, and witnesses should be shown lineup photos one at a time, with an emphasis that the correct perpetrator may not be present.

Reforms and Advocacy

  • Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, now an advocate for eyewitness identification reforms, shares her story to inspire change.
  • North Carolina has implemented reforms such as sequential photo lineups and emphasizing the possibility of no correct identification.
  • Mike Gden developed computer software for photo lineups, but widespread adoption of these reforms remains a challenge.
  • Law professor Rich Rosen stresses the importance of police support in implementing reforms to effectively catch criminals.

Ronald Cotton and Friendship

  • Ronald Cotton, exonerated after wrongful conviction, has rebuilt his life and works to prevent similar injustices.
  • Jennifer and Ronald have formed an unlikely friendship and co-authored a book to share their story and raise awareness.
  • Despite the trauma, Jennifer finds solace in knowing her attacker is no longer a threat and values her friendship with Ronald.

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