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Crime victim calls for better identification practices in Georgia

Posted: October 23, 2007 4:45 pm

After Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was raped in 1984, she identified a man in a police lineup as her attacker. The officer conducting the lineup told her she had done a “good job,” confirming that she’d picked the suspect. Eleven years later, DNA evidence proved that suspect, Ronald Cotton, had been wrongfully convicted of the rape.

Before a rapt audience Monday at a legislative study committee hearing, Cannino recounted the horror of her sexual assault on June 29, 1984, and her horror when learning 11 years later she had misidentified her attacker and helped send the wrong man to prison. The real attacker, later identified by DNA evidence, had gone on to rape six more women after he attacked Cannino.

"It's a human system," Cannino said. "We are fallible. We make mistakes. There are practices that can be put into place."

Read the full story here. (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 10/23/07)
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck and Iowa State Psychology Professor Gary Wells also testified before the group Monday, describing lineup procedures proven to increase the accuracy of eyewitness identifications. Download the study committee’s full schedule here.

Read more about Ronald Cotton’s wrongful conviction and exoneration here.

Tags: Georgia, Ronald Cotton, Eyewitness Identification



Exoneree and crime victim are named as Soros Justice Fellows

Posted: March 4, 2008 11:02 am

In July 1984, a man broke into Jennifer Thompson-Cannino’s North Carolina apartment and raped her. She identified Ronald Cotton in a lineup as the man who had attacked her, and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In 1994, DNA testing on evidence from that rape proved that Cotton had been misidentified and wrongfully convicted. He had served more than a decade in prison before he was exonerated.

Yesterday the Open Society Institute announced that Cotton, Thompson-Cannino and author Erin Torneo are recipients of a 2008 Soros Justice Fellowship, which will provide support for the group to continue their work to raise awareness about wrongful convictions and eyewitness identification reforms. For years, Cotton and Thompson-Cannino have traveled around the country speaking about the dangers of wrongful conviction and reforms needed to prevent the eyewitness misidentifications.

Read more about the Soros Justice Fellowships here.

Read more about Ronald Cotton’s case here

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino’s op-eds have been published in New York Times, the Durham-Herald Sun, and the Tallahassee Democrat. Read her New York Times op-ed, “I was certain, but I was wrong,” here.

Tags: North Carolina, Ronald Cotton, Eyewitness Misidentification



13 years of freedom for North Carolina man

Posted: July 3, 2008 8:00 am

After spending over 10 years in a North Carolina prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Ronald Cotton was exonerated on June 30, 1995. Monday marked the 13th anniversary of his exoneration.

Since his exoneration, Cotton has traveled the country talking about his experiences and fighting for criminal justice reform. In his travels, he has had an unlikely companion: Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, the victim who misidentified Cotton as her rapist. Today, Cannino often works alongside Cotton to raise awareness about the flaws of eyewitness identification, which contribute to over 75% of wrongful convictions.

Click here to learn more about eyewitness misidentification.

Over the years, the pair has also worked to increase compensation for exonerees in North Carolina, which offered only $500 for every year spent in prison when Cotton was exonerated. Now, North Carolina offers $20,000 a year. But many states—25 in all—have no law requiring exoneree compensation at all.

Click here to learn more about exoneree compensation.

Cotton and Cannino are also working on a new project together. The duo (with Erin Torneo) received a Soros Justice Grant to write a book about their experiences: Picking Cotton: A True Story. Read more about the book here.

Other exoneration anniversaries this week:

Wednesday: Kenneth Adams, Illinois (Served 17.5 years, Exonerated 7/02/96)

Willie Rainge, Illinois (Served 17.5 years, Exonerated 7/02/1996)

Dennis Williams, Illinois (Served 17.5 years, Exonerated 7/02/96)

Saturday: William Gregory, Kentucky (Served 7 years, Exonerated 7/05/00)

Tags: Kenneth Adams, Ronald Cotton, William Gregory, Willie Rainge, Dennis Williams



Ronald Cotton Marks 14 Years with a Bestselling Book

Posted: July 1, 2009 2:10 pm

Fourteen years ago this week, Ronald Cotton walked out of a North Carolina prison a free man for the first time in more than a decade. In two trials in 1985 and 1987, Cotton was convicted of rape and burglary largely based on the victim’s misidentification. In May 1995, DNA testing finally proved Cotton’s innocence.

After his release, Cotton worked hard to rebuild his life. He took on two jobs to get himself back on his feet. He got married and has a daughter, who today is 10 years old. But Cotton’s remarkable post-exoneration success story did not end there.
Two years after his exoneration, Cotton met face to face with the victim in the case, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, who had misidentified him as her attacker. According to an MSNBC article, Thompson-Cannino recalled telling Cotton when they first met that “if she atoned every day for the rest of her life, it would not be enough to make up for the years [he] had lost.” Cotton responded by telling Thompson-Cannino that he had already forgiven her.  In a recent interview on the Today Show, Cotton explained his response, saying “I couldn’t carry on serving my time in the prison system holding grudges and thinking about retaliating against a person that made an honest mistake. I had to proceed on in life regardless.”

Since that first meeting, the two have become close friends and today they have joined together to fight against injustice. They give speeches about their experiences, advocate for reform, and have worked to expose the causes of wrongful conviction. They focus, in particular, on pursuing reforms to eyewitness identification procedures – urging states to mandate changes that are proven to reduce misidentifications. Their advocacy has contributed to successful reforms across the country, including their home state of North Carolina.

Most recently, Cotton and Thompson-Cannino worked with author Erin Torneo to write "Picking Cotton," a best-selling memoir written about their experiences and the need for criminal justice reform. In the book, which was released earlier this year, Cotton and Thompson-Cannino tell  their stories in their own words, discuss the need for improved police procedures, and demonstrate the importance of forgiveness.

Buy your copy of “Picking Cotton” at through this link and a portion of proceeds will benefit the Innocence Project.

Other Anniversaries This Week:

Thursday: Dennis Williams, Illinois (Served 17.5 Years, Exonerated 7/2/96)
Thursday: Kenneth Adams, Illinois (Served 17.5 Years, Exonerated 7/2/96)
Thursday: Willie Rainge, Illinois (Served 17.5 Years, Exonerated 7/2/96)

Tags: Ronald Cotton



The role of race in misidentification

Posted: August 11, 2008 4:02 pm

Social science research has shown that eyewitness misidentifications are more likely to happen when the perpetrator and witness are of different racial backgrounds. And statistics on the 218 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing to date support the evidence. More than one-third of these wrongful convictions were caused by a cross-racial identification.

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino (above) knows first-hand how a misidentification can happen. When an African-American attacker broke into her home and raped her in 1984, she made a conscious effort to note the perpetrator’s features so she could identify him later. Thompson-Cannino, who is white, helped police draw up a composite sketch, and then she viewed photographs and identified Ronald Cotton as the rapist. She told the jury she was certain, and Cotton was sentenced to life. But she was wrong.

DNA testing exonerated Cotton after he had served more than a decade in prison. Eyewitness misidentification played a role in more than three-quarters of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, and Thompson-Cannino and Cotton now travel the country telling audiences how it can happen. And she has written a book with Cotton, scheduled for release early next year, about wrongful convictions and their unusual partnership to address the causes of this injustice and reforms to prevent it from happening again.

Read an Associated Press Sunday feature story on cross-racial identifications here.

Read more about Thompson-Cannino and Cotton here

Tags: Ronald Cotton, Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification



The Story of an Unlikely Friendship Sparked by Injustice

Posted: February 25, 2009 2:37 pm

“Picking Cotton,” a highly anticipated new book set to be released next week, tells the story of a wrongful conviction from the perspectives of both the victim of a 1984 sexual assault and the innocent man who spent a decade in prison for the crime before DNA testing set him free. But the story doesn’t end at exoneration. The book goes on to describe the unlikely friendship between the crime victim, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, and Ronald Cotton, who she misidentified in the attack. The two met two years after Cotton was exonerated and today they travel around the country telling their story and urging states to reform eyewitness identification practices to prevent wrongful convictions.

Written with author Erin Torneo, “Picking Cotton” will – in the words of Sister Helen Prejean – “break your heart and lift it up again.”

The book is set to be released Tuesday, March 3, but you can preorder your copy from today and a portion of proceeds will support the Innocence Project.

Watch a video here to hear the moving story in the words of Cotton and Thompson-Cannino.

Tags: Ronald Cotton



Picking Cotton

Posted: March 6, 2009 5:36 pm

“Picking Cotton,” a new book by exoneree Ronald Cotton and crime victim Jennifer-Thompson Cannino, tells a moving story of misidentification and wrongful conviction – and the crusade for reform that followed Cotton’s exoneration.

Cotton and Thompson-Cannino were featured on National Public Radio today and CBS News’ “60 Minutes” will tell their story on Sunday night at 7 p.m.
Order your copy of the book, and learn more about the case and the pair’s friendship and crusade for criminal justice reform.

Tags: Ronald Cotton



Guest Blog: Writing Cotton

Posted: March 19, 2009 5:18 pm

By Erin Torneo
Co-Author, "Picking Cotton: A Memoir of Injustice and Redemption"

Writing Picking Cotton has taken me from a hotel lobby in Greensboro to the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the abolition of the death penalty, from the lethal injection chamber in Raleigh’s Central Prison to the streets of Savannah, GA.  Once, while in San Francisco for the Soros Fellowship Conference, I even found myself at Alcatraz with Jennifer and Ron, sightseeing. When the tour invited us to step inside a solitary confinement cell, Ron hung back. “Not going in?” I asked, after Jennifer and I took our turns inside the dark cramped cell. “Hell no,” he replied, laughing. It was just one of many moments that reminded me that their seemingly ordinary, decades-old friendship is just as improbable as Ron, who spent nearly eleven years of his life wrongfully incarcerated, wanting to visit a prison on his day off. The journey, suffice to say, has been incredible, bringing me deep into some of the complex issues surrounding wrongful convictions and forever changing the way I will think about crime and punishment in the United States.

“I don’t know if I’ll be of any help at all,” Jennifer’s rape crisis counselor told me the spring afternoon I went to interview her at Elon College. What could she remember, after all this time? But it became very clear as we spoke that she had one particularly strong memory: the day she accompanied Jennifer to the physical lineup. “I remember it was one of the most take-your-breath away things, the fear,” she said. She vividly recalled the details of the physical lineup, mentioning the one-way window. I interrupted her to tell her in fact, there had been no glass, nor wall at all, as verified by the police report and the investigating officer. The seven suspects were standing merely feet away from both of them. She was astounded. “Isn’t that strange? In my mind, I had given us the distance of at least having a wall there. I had given us that safety.” She paused and then said, “How frightening. I think I prefer the safety of my memory.”

It was just a small example of the undercurrent that runs through the book— the fragility of memory itself. Their case has become a hallmark of the relationship between eyewitness misidentification and wrongful convictions because of how little we really understand about how memory works. I have seen Jennifer — and more recently Michele Mallin — vilified by people for their mistaken eyewitness testimony. It is further proof of the need to educate people about the many variables that can contribute to misidentification. By putting the reader in Jennifer’s shoes, I hope Picking Cotton helps to illuminate just how difficult making an eyewitness identification is—even when you are sure—and remind people everywhere that she was a victim of a brutal crime that derailed her life.  Jennifer pursued justice in the hopes that her assailant — whom she knew had gone off to rape a second woman an hour after she escaped—would never be able to hurt another woman. The failure was systemic—not personal—and her brave decision to forfeit her privacy (many victims never come forward in other wrongful conviction cases) is the reason many states have adopted reform measures.

Working on the book has also taught me that newly won freedom can be as bewildering as the first days of incarceration, which you can see once you shift to Ron’s point of view. Though many exonerees today make headlines for the millions of (well-deserved) dollars they receive after winning lawsuits, it is important to know that Ronald Cotton is not one of those exonerees. When he first got out, he tried to return to school to get his GED, but eventually quit so he could take a second job and earn more money. He wanted to move out of his sister’s home and into an independent life. Now he works five, sometimes six days a week at an insulation plant, where the heat and the fumes take their toll on his sinuses. Lately, the faltering economy has impacted the work available at the plant. Ron’s regular shifts are no longer guaranteed, and he struggles to make ends meet.

As the first post-conviction DNA exoneree in North Carolina, Ronald Cotton’s case paved the way for many of the progressive measures the state later adopted. Jennifer actually helped to lobby the state to create the compensation bill that entitled Ron to roughly $110,000. Since that time, North Carolina has updated its compensation law twice, but Ron was excluded from the improved benefits (which, in addition to significantly more money, also include job training and tuition). Perhaps North Carolina officials will reconsider the terms of the statute and offer the same benefits to all six of its exonerees.

The State v. Cotton case touches on many important issues in the innocence movement — the fact that the DNA was not destroyed though Ron had exhausted all of his appeals, the access he had to DNA testing, how simple changes to photo array and physical lineup procedures can reduce eyewitness identification errors, the importance of having state resources in place that can help the exonerated back on their feet, but most of all, it shows that the effects of wrongful convictions are devastating on both sides.

Ron waited 11 years for justice to prevail, but in the end, so did Jennifer.

Erin Torneo is the coauthor of "Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption," the true story of an unlikely friendship forged between Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, the man Cannino incorrectly identified as her rapist and sent to prison for eleven years. 

Tags: Ronald Cotton



Donate by April 30 for a Chance to Win a Signed Copy of "Picking Cotton"

Posted: April 16, 2009 5:03 pm

"Picking Cotton," the best-selling new book by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, has raised the level of conversation across America about wrongful convictions and eyewitness misidentification. Today, the Innocence Project announced a chance to win a signed copy of the book – make an online donation before April 30 and you’ll have a chance to win.

"Picking Cotton" tells the story of the horrible circumstances under which Thompson-Cannino and Cotton met, and the extraordinary path that brought them together again to work for criminal justice reform. Thompson-Cannino was raped in her home in 1984, and she identified Cotton in a photo lineup – and then a live lineup and at trial – as the perpetrator. He was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.

Eleven years later. Thompson-Cannino got a knock on her door. Police officers told her DNA testing has been conducted in Cotton’s case and had proven him innocent and implicated the real perpetrator, a man named Bobby Poole. She was shocked at first, but soon came to realize that eyewitness misidentifications aren’t at all uncommon.

Cotton was exonerated and released, and today the two are close friends. They travel around the country working to raise awareness of wrongful convictions and criminal justice reforms – especially to eyewitness identification procedures – that can prevent future injustice. Their story shows how eyewitnesses testimony can lead to wrongful convictions and it makes the case for simple changes to identification procedures that are proven to decrease inaccurate identifications.

Donate today and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of “Picking Cotton”

Learn more about their story and the book here – and watch video interviews with Cotton and Thompson-Cannino

Tags: Ronald Cotton



Last Day to Win a Copy of "Picking Cotton"

Posted: April 30, 2009 6:54 pm

Ronald Cotton spent 11 years in North Carolina prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence. Jennifer Thompson-Cannino spent the same 11 years believing that Cotton was the man who raped her. She was shocked the day he was exonerated, but has since learned that she and Cotton aren’t alone in the injustice they suffered. Wrongful convictions are too common in the United States and today Cotton and Thompson-Cannino work together to raise awareness of wrongful convictions and reforms to prevent injustice.

Their compelling new book, “Picking Cotton,” tells the story of their case and the reforms that could have prevented Cotton’s wrongful conviction. Their story was also featured recently on CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”

Jennifer and Ron are signing 50 copies of “Picking Cotton” and we will randomly select 50 donors from all of those who give by midnight tonight to receive a free copy.

Please support our work and make an online donation by midnight.

Tags: Ronald Cotton



Eyewitness Reforms and Stronger Evidence

Posted: September 17, 2009 2:25 pm

USA Today reports today on states and cities across the U.S. that have changed eyewitness identification procedures after DNA exonerations underlined flaws in traditional procedures. Not only are these improved procedures helping to prevent misidentifications — law enforcement agencies are finding that they provide stronger evidence, too.

Dallas is one of the latest cities to make the change voluntarily:

Since changing its policy in April, Dallas Police Lt. David Pughes says the department has conducted 1,400 lineups and believes "we're bringing a stronger piece of evidence to court."

…Pughes, who oversees the department's lineup program, calls the modifications a "huge, huge change to the investigative process." He admits the changes came only after Dallas County emerged as the nation's largest source of exonerations. "The lineup process really hadn't been challenged until DNA exonerations brought to light that innocent people were in jail," Pughes says.

Read the full story here. (USA Today, 09/17/09)
The Innocence Project is working with advocates and lawmakers in more than ten states to support proposed reforms in the next year. Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing, playing a role in more than 75% of the 242 DNA exoneration cases. Read more about this issue and the proposed reforms in the recent Innocence Project report: “Reevaluating Lineups: Why Witnesses Make Mistakes and How to Reduce the Chance of a Misidentification.”

Advocacy by exonerees and crime victims have contributed to reforms, like in North Carolina, where exoneree Ronald Cotton and crime victim Jennifer Thompson-Cannino spoke out in favor of lineup reforms and helped bring about a comprehensive new state law in 2007. Thompson-Cannino was the victim of a rape in 1984 and she misidentified Cotton as the perpetrator. He was exonerated through DNA testing in 1995, and today the two are friends and co-authors of the 2009 book “Picking Cotton.” Watch them on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” here.

What’s the law in your state? Find out here.

Tags: Ronald Cotton, Eyewitness Identification



Host a Book Club on Wrongful Convictions

Posted: January 6, 2010 12:05 am

“Picking Cotton” was released this week in paperback, and reading groups around the country are getting together this month to discuss issues surrounding eyewitness misidentification and wrongful convictions.

The book, by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo, tells the story of Cotton’s wrongful conviction in 1985 for allegedly breaking into Thompson-Cannino’s home and raping her. After serving a decade in prison, DNA testing proved that another man committed the crime, and Cotton was freed. Today, the two are close friends and travel the country speaking to audiences about the importance of criminal justice reforms to prevent wrongful convictions.

Buy “Picking Cotton” on
and download the reading group guide here.

There are several other books from the last decade on wrongful convictions, DNA exonerations and criminal justice issue that would also be perfect for book clubs. Check out our list of the top ten books of the last decade.

Don’t have a book club and interested in starting one? Find one near you.

Tags: Ronald Cotton



An Extraordinary Man and a Common Injustice

Posted: June 30, 2010 5:06 pm

Today, united in their joint opposition to injustice, Cotton and Thompson are close friends, speaking together, advocating for reform and working to expose and remedy the causes of wrongful conviction. The two friends authored a book, “Picking Cotton,” a best-selling memoir about their individual experiences and the issue of eyewitness misidentification.

Since leaving prison, Ronald Cotton has led an exceptional life. The narrative of his friendship with Thompson is an exceptional story. But the facts of Cotton’s case: his age, the length of time he spent in prison, and the reason Cotton was sent to jail for a decade —eyewitness misidentification — are unfortunately all unexceptional. The average length of time served by exonerees is 13 years, and the average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongful convictions is 27 (Cotton was 22). Also, eyewitness misidentification was a factor in 75 percent of DNA exonerations.

Thompson and Cotton refuse to accept a system where wrongful convictions are too common, and they’re working to change it. Learn more about their stories by reading the first chapter of “Picking Cotton” here.

Watch a special report from CBS News’ ”60 Minutes” on Cotton and Thompson

Read Cotton’s case profile on our site.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

Kenneth Adams, Illinois (Served 17.5 Years, Exonerated 7/2/96)

Willie Rainge, Illinois (Served 17.5 Years, Exonerated 7/2/96)

Dennis Williams, Illinois (Served 17.5 Years, Exonerated 7/2/96)

Kirk Bloodsworth, Maryland (Served 8 Years, Exonerated 6/28/93)

Tags: Ronald Cotton, Eyewitness Misidentification



Race and Misidentification

Posted: December 27, 2010 3:19 pm

Wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing demonstrate the danger of cross-racial misidentification. Three-quarters of the 265 DNA exoneration cases involved misidentification, and in more than half of the misidentification cases the perpetrator and eyewitness were of different racial backgrounds.

The two-part Post-Gazette series this week looks at cross-racial misidentification and a new method for developing composite sketches. Read the articles here and try your hand as an eyewitness in this interactive feature.

Tags: Ronald Cotton, Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification



New Slate Series on Eyewitness Misidentification

Posted: April 13, 2011 5:13 pm

Although the Thompson identified Cotton as the perpetrator on two separate occasions, he was also the only suspect to appear in both the photo array and the live lineup. Thompson was also reassured by law enforcement officials after her first identification that she “did great,” inevitably contributing to her second identification at the lineup. After selecting Thompson again,   the officers again reinforced her misidentification by telling her it was “the same person [she] picked from the photos.”

Garret argues that best practices grounded in psychological research can reduce misidentifications.

Eyewitnesses should always be told the attacker might not be present in the lineup. Their initial confidence level should be documented (because, like in Ronald Cotton's case, by the time of trial it may change). The most crucial proposed reform is double-blind administration. The officer administering a photo or live lineup should not be aware who the suspect is, and the witness should be told the officer does not know.

Garrett warns that failure to reform the system can only help history repeat itself: “The same systemic failures will cause countless wrongful convictions in the future unless we make our criminal justice system more accurate.”

In a joint cooperation with the Innocence Project, Garrett also unveiled the first section of a new interactive feature on the causes of wrongful conviction on the Innocence Project website that includes additional information on eyewitness misidentification reform and the Cotton case.

Tags: Ronald Cotton, Eyewitness Identification