CBS’ “60 Minutes” used the story of a North Carolina man who spent 11 years in prison on a wrongful conviction for rape to show how eyewitness identifications can go awry. The case involved Ron Cotton, who was convicted largely on the strength of testimony by the victim, Jennifer Thompson. DNA evidence later showed that another man had committed the crime. CBS recounted how Thompson misidentified Cotton as her attacker when Burlington, N.C., police detective Mike Gauldin used the traditional police method of setting up lineups, with the lead investigator involved in the details of the procedure and potentially influencing her identification.
The story explained how “sequential lineups” now used in many places can help prevent misidentifications. Gauldin helped develop computer software to conduct photo lineups via a laptop, to help avoid having comments by police officers sway witnesses. Law professor Rich Rosen of the University of North Carolina says that in the vast majority of places, there’s been no reform, and that needs to change. “This is something that police officers can and should be in favor of,” he said. The real rapist in the North Carolina case committed more crimes when police “went after Ron Cotton,” Rosen said “So Ron is not the only person who suffered from this mistake.” The victim and the wrongfully accused assailant, Thompson and Cotton, have co-authored a book about the issue, Picking Cotton.