“I Was Certain, But I Was Wrong.” Speakers to Address Eyewitness Testimony and Wrongful Conviction

Lexington, VA • Thursday, March 02, 2006

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson
Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson
In July 1984, police investigated two rapes in the Burlington, NC area. After one of the victims identified him, both by photo and in a lineup, Ronald Cotton was prosecuted and convicted of one of the rapes in 1985. On retrial two years later, a jury convicted him of both rapes. He was innocent of both crimes.

Students for an Innocence Project, along with the Office of Student Services, the Asian American Law Society, the Black Law Students Association, the American Constitution Society, the National Lawyers Guild and the Women Law Students Organization, is proud to welcome Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson to the Washington and Lee University School of Law on March 30, 2006, at 7 p.m. in the Moot Court Room of Sydney Lewis Hall.  Ronald Cotton spent 10 and a half years in prison after Jennifer Thompson identified him as the man who raped her in 1984.

This compelling story begins in 1984, when Jennifer Thompson was raped by a man who broke into her apartment, awakened her from sleep and held a knife to her throat. After her eyes adjusted to the dim morning light, she tried to focus on his face. Thompson wanted to remember her rapist so that she could identify him. When she was allowed to move around her apartment, she turned on lights in hopes that this would illuminate him and solidify her memory. He told her to turn them off. When she was standing she tried to stand near him so that she could remember how tall he was. 

Only days later, Thompson identified her rapist in a photo and again in a physical lineup.  She remembered his distinct nose, his tall and slender physique, and his slouchy posture when she identified Ronald Cotton as the man who raped her. Cotton was convicted in 1985 of rape and burglary, but his conviction was later overturned.  While the state of North Carolina prepared for a second trial against Cotton, a convicted felon named Bobby Poole confessed to the crimes Cotton was being charged with. 

Cotton was retried in 1987. Poole and two jailhouse informants appeared at this trial, though the jury was excused from the court while they were present. Thompson did not think Poole was her rapist, and reaffirmed Cotton as her attacker, who was again convicted and sentenced to life in prison. 

In 1994 Cotton’s second conviction was appealed, and in October the defense counsel’s motion for DNA testing was granted. The results, released in May of 1995, exonerated Cotton and conclusively proved that Bobby Poole had raped Jennifer Thompson. Cotton was cleared of all charges on June 30, 1995, and was later pardoned by the Governor of North Carolina.  Cotton is still awaiting his $5,000 compensation from the state of North Carolina for the years he spent in prison.

Thompson is now an outspoken opponent of the death penalty and a regular lecturer on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Thompson credits Cotton with teaching her the power of forgiveness and the dangers of unreliable eyewitness identifications. As an advocate, Thompson successfully lobbied legislators in North Carolina to change laws so that Cotton and others can be more generously compensated for their wrongful convictions. She is now a member of the newly formed “Actual Innocence Commission,” board chair of the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice and sits on the advisory committee for Active Voices.

Cotton and Thompson will also speak as part of the capital defense seminar hosted by W&L’s Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse on Friday, March 31. In addition to other topics, the seminar will provide a practice-oriented update on recent Virginia legislation and police regulations that are designed to modernize eyewitness identification procedures in the Commonwealth. This seminar is restricted to capital defense attorneys. For more information, visit http://www.vc3.org.

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