People can develop false memories. A look at Ronald Cotton’s Case shows that memories can be false.

Maybe it’s not the memories that are false so much as the testimony about what they, at the time they testify, believe they may have saw. People can be easily manipulated into saying just about anything, and believing too.

We hear in the news that people are released from jail sometimes after spending decades in prison for crimes they did not commit. Most of these cases include eyewitness testimony that was a major factor in the sentences. Eyewitness testimony can be very persuasive to a jury because victims don’t have any reason to lie and police don’t want to put the wrong person behind bars, but researchers have found that eyewitness testimony is not reliable. Ronald Cotton’s case is a famous case that shows how eyewitness testimony can be false and lead juries to convict an innocent person. The Ronald Cotton case involves a woman named Jennifer Thompson who was sure that Ronald Cotton was the man that raped her. Ten years later she realized that she identified the wrong man.

Eyewitness Testimony Procedure and The Police Lineup

Jennifer Thompson was sure that she identified the right man even though the other victim that was raped that same night identified another man. Ronald Cotton finally ended up winning his appeal only because another inmate told someone that he was guilty of the rapes that happened that night, but during the appeal, the other victim decided that Ronald Cotton must have been the man that raped her too, so Ronald Cotton was convicted of both crimes even though he was not actually guilty of either crime.

So how was Ronald Cotton convicted of two crimes that he did not commit? And why did the second victim change her mind and testify that Ronald Cotton was the man that raped her too? Why was the second victim even allowed to change her testimony to identify the innocent man?

Many people think that memory is like a video or a picture that plays in a person’s mind, but that is not true. People can develop false memories. Criminologists say that 75% of the people exonerated after crimes they never committed were sentenced because of eyewitness testimony. Forensic scientists have concluded that people can easily develop false memories through a series of suggestions that something is true, or that someone did something that in reality they did not do.

In almost all of the cases where people have been exonerated the actual perpetrator was not in the police lineup. Police never showed Jennifer Thompson Bobby Poole’s picture during the interview where she identified Ronald Cotton, so Jennifer Thompson never had a reason to think that she had identified the wrong person. In Jennifer’s mind, the police had caught the man that raped her and she just had to pick the right one from the photos that were shown to her. Why wasn’t she shown the picture of Booby Poole? The men share similar facial traits. If a picture of Bobby Poole had been placed next to a picture of Ronald Cotton it may have made a difference in Jennifer’s choice of suspects, or at least made her think twice about which one raped her. A CBS report, Eyewitness Testimony Part 2 shows how Jennifer made the mistake.

Also, the fact that the other witness, Elizabeth Watson changed her mind during the appeal to say that Ronald Cotton raped her is something that we should think more about. What lead to her changing her mind to identify and testify against the wrong man? A blood sample that was voluntarily provided by Cotton did not match the blood from Watson’s door. The judge in the appeal case also withheld evidence that could have made both women wonder if they were identifying the right man. The outcome of Ronald Cotton’s case may have been very different had Jennifer Thompson seen a picture of Bobby Poole next to Ronald Cotton’s picture during the interview or if both men had been included in the police lineup when the victims were asked to identify the suspects. Lucky for Ronald Cotton, a public defender motioned for DNA evidence to be tested and Ronald Cotton was exonerated.

Ronald Cotton was scared originally when he found out that the police were looking for him. He made up an alibi that detectives checked and found to be false. The friends that Cotton said he was with stated that Cotton was with them on a different night. Cotton said he had simply made a mistake, but the police did not believe that. Cotton was arrested and put in the lineup where Thompson identified him. Watson viewed the same lineup and identified one of the fillers as the man who raped her. Thus, Cotton was charged with raping Thompson but not Watson.

At Cotton’s jury trial in the Alamance County Superior Court, Thompson identified Cotton in open court as the man who raped her. Defense attorney Philip Moseley attempted to introduce evidence of a second rape—in which Watson had identified another man as the rapist and in which Cotton had been excluded as the source of blood found on the door through which her assailant entered.

Judge Anthony H. Brannon, however, withheld evidence and did not allow the jury to hear the evidence of the blood not matching or that Watson had picked someone else from the lineup. The only physical evidence in the case was the small piece of rubber found in Thompson’s apartment and the battered tennis shoes found in Cotton’s apartment. The jury found Cotton guilty, and Judge Brannon sentenced him to life in prison, but in 1987 the

North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the conviction and remanded the case for retrial on the ground that Brannon should have admitted the exculpatory evidence regarding the second rape. While Cotton was awaiting retrial, Watson somehow concluded that Cotton was the man who raped her, even though in 1984 she had erroneously identified a lineup filler as her rapist. The prosecution then charged Cotton with raping Watson in addition to raping Thompson.

The case gets even more twisted. Before Cotton’s trial for the two rapes, a prisoner came forward contending that an imprisoned serial rapist named Bobby Poole, an African American in his twenties, had boasted that he had committed the rapes with which Cotton was now charged. Poole’s blood type matched the blood spot found in Watson’s case, but Poole was called as a witness and denied both rapes. In a dramatic moment, Thompson told the jury, “Bobby Poole didn’t rape me. Ronald Cotton did”. The jury found Cotton guilty of both rapes, and Judge Marsh McLelland sentenced him to two life terms plus 54 years. The conviction was affirmed by the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 1990 and by the North Carolina Supreme Court the following year.

And then Richard Rosen, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, agreed to represent Cotton and filed a motion for DNA testing. Luckily, Burlington Police Detective Gauldin had preserved the biological material in the case although there was no legal requirement for it to be maintained. Semen had been recovered from both victims. The sample from Thompson was too degraded to test, but testing of the sample recovered from Watson positively excluded Cotton as Watson’s rapist and identified Poole as the perpetrator of that crime. Finally, under questioning by Gauldin, Poole confessed to both rapes. In May 1995, the prosecution joined Rosen in a motion to drop all charges, and Judge McLelland granted the motion. Cotton received a gubernatorial pardon based on innocence the following month.

Improving procedures:

Besides the judge withholding evidence that might have led to Ronald Cotton being exonerated sooner, the police could have informed Jennifer Thompson that another woman had been raped that same night and that she had identified another suspect that looked similar to Ronald Cotton. Some police are now trained to tell victims that the suspects in the lineup may not be the culprit. This reduces the victim’s thoughts created by hopeful wishes that the police have the right person. Telling the victim that there is another suspect and lining them up together may help the witness to identify the right person. In Ronald Cotton’s case, Bobby Poole does look like him because they share similar facial features. Had both suspects been in the lineup, both women may have correctly identified the right culprit. We will never know.

Research shows that a victim delaying making a positive identification usually leads to misidentification so police should consider how long it takes a victim to identify someone in a lineup and how hard the victim is trying to “identify the right person” such as the thoughts that  Jennifer expressed were running through her mind at the time that she was called to identify a suspect. Another suggestion is for police to replace the suspect that was identified with another suspect or filler in a second lineup that has a similar appearance. If the victim mistakes the suspects identity in the lineup, then it is possible that the victim may be mistaken the suspect in the first lineup as well.

John Washburg’s Laundry List for Lineups

John Washburg’s laundry list for lineups could be used to make improvements in eyewitness testimonies. Washburg suggest:

Use fillers in lineups that generally fit the description made by the witness.

Displaying photos sequentially rather than simultaneously.

Avoid a second lineup that includes the same suspect and witness.

Avoid suggestive words or actions after the identification procedure has been completed.

Had the police working Ronald Cotton’s case used fillers and displayed photos sequentially Ronald Cotton may have never been wrongfully convicted. The idea of showing suspects sequentially is meant to reduce the victim’s feeling of having to choose a suspect. Washburg also suggests avoiding a second lineup that includes the same suspect and witness. Had Jennifer Thompson seen Booby Poole instead of Ronald Cotton in a second lineup, the case may have gone a different direction from the beginning.

One idea suggests that Jennifer Thompson’s confidence in the idea that she choose the right suspect influenced Watson to change her testimony and identify the wrong man. Washburg suggests that officers avoiding suggestive words or actions after the identification procedure has been completed. Another reason that police should not tell the victim that they have picked the right or wrong suspect is because it jeopardizes the admissibility in court.

Minding Hearts is building advocacy and peer support groups, “Hearts and Minds” in each state. The groups are created to raise awareness, educate, and advocate for those that might not otherwise be heard. We are here for encouragement, education, and support. We cannot give legal advice, but we can try and direct you in the right direction with your case. Links to legal services are listed with their states. Please share and let’s grow our groups. We are here to support families and develop resources that maintain family integrity. We look forward to your support. If you would rather become active by donating, then visit the donation page. Thank you.

Related article: Kevin Strickland is free after 40 years. Prosecutor hopes to teach other prosecutors what she has learned through the adversarial process of setting an innocent man free.


Case Study- Ronald Cotton, Retrieved From,

Costanzo, M., & Krauss, D. (2018). Forensic and legal psychology: Psychological science applied to law (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Washburg, John, (2019), Eyewitness identification procedures: Legal and practical aspects, Criminal Justice Training Commission,  Law Enforcement Digest, Retrieved From,

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