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.

References

Case Study- Ronald Cotton, Retrieved From, https://pricekscience.weebly.com/uploads/1/1/0/0/11007001/ronald_cotton_case_study.pdf

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, https://www.cjtc.wa.gov/docs/default-source/law-enforcement-digests/special-topics/eyewitness-id-current-thru-07-01-19-final.pdf?sfvrsn=c3b874a5_

He sexually assaulted inmates all over the US for almost a decade before he was arrested.

Eric Scott Kindley, prison guard that sexually assaulted inmates from 2012 to 2017

Kindlay sexually assaulted a woman he was transporting in 2014, and in 2017 he used a firearm in another sexual assault of another woman that was in his custody, but there are other reports that date back as far as 2012. Little Rock prison guard sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting inmates. Why wasn’t he arrested sooner?

A broadcast over Trinity Radio told that the Department of Justice reported that a Little Rock Arkansas prison guard, Eric Scott Kindlay, was sentenced to life in prison and five years. The Office of Public Affairs released the news back in March of 2020 that the transport officer assaulted two women that were in his custody. Kindlay sexually assaulted a woman he was transporting in 2014, and in 2017 he used a firearm in another sexual assault of another woman that was in his custody.

From the DOJ website the story becomes very shocking. This man had a contract to transport prisoners all over the country in an unmarked van, and all of the people that testified described similar instances of him abusing inmates:

Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said, “The defendant was a prison transport officer who abused his law enforcement authority by sexually assaulting prisoners entrusted to his custody.  That is a federal crime, and the Department of Justice will vigorously investigate and prosecute law enforcement officers who unlawfully use their position to abuse those in their custody. Today’s conviction was made possible by the brave women who testified about their abuse, and the tireless work of federal investigators and prosecutors over the last three years.”

“Kindley took advantage of his authority to exploit the very people he was entrusted with transporting across the country,” said Sean Kaul, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Phoenix Field Office. “We commend the many victims, across the nation, who came forward to report this despicable crime. This conviction should serve as notice that anyone who uses their authority to exploit individuals in their custody, will be held accountable and the FBI will continue to aggressively pursue these types of cases. We would like to thank the FBI agents across the country whose tireless efforts helped bring Kindley to justice and the Department of Justice for their tremendous work on this case.”

Kindley operated a private prisoner transport company that contracted with local jails throughout the country to transport individuals who were arrested on out-of-state warrants. Kindley transported individuals alone, without any oversight, in his unmarked white minivan, often for hundreds of miles. The jury heard from six women whom he transported between 2013 and 2017, all of whom described Kindley’s pattern of conduct. Kindley transported them alone over long distances, handcuffed and shackled in the backseat of the van. Kindley forced them to listen to sexually explicit comments that escalated in intensity and depravity. Some women dealt with the comments by trying to make a joke of it; others attempted to talk back and end the comments, while others sat silently. In each instance, Kindley drove to desolate locations, putting the women in fear of being sexually assaulted, severely hurt, or worse.  

One of those women testified at trial that when Kindley transported her Alabama to Arizona in 2017, he stopped his van in a deserted area near Little Rock and sexually assaulted her while she was handcuffed, reminding her, as he did with other victims that she was “an inmate in transport” and that no one would believe her if she reported her. A second woman testified that when Kindley transported her in 2014, he stopped his van in a deserted area, also in Arkansas, and forced her to perform a sex act on him. A third woman testified that during her transport by Kindley in 2013 from Florida to Texas, he pulled his van over on the side of a dark road and sexually assaulted her. A fourth woman also testified that during her  2012 transport by from Nevada to California, Kindley stopped his van in a deserted park. He forced her to perform a sex act on him in a park bathroom. A fifth woman testified that during her 2013 transport from California to Montana, Kindley attempted to sexually assault her after he pulled over on the side of the road during a snowstorm. The jury heard testimony that none of the women who testified knew one another.

Kindley is also under indictment in the Central District of California for committing similar offenses related to his sexual assault of two other women in his custody in 2012 and 2017, and for brandishing a firearm during one of the sexual assaults. One of those women testified at this trial.

Kindley faces a maximum of life in prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set.

The case was investigated by the Phoenix Division of the FBI with assistance from FBI field offices throughout the United States, and prosecuted by Special Litigation Counsel Fara Gold and Trial Attorney Maura White of the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, with assistance from the United States Attorney’s Offices for the Eastern District of Arkansas and the District of Arizona.

What is so disturbing is that Kindlay was allowed to continue transporting after the first sexual assault in 2012. Only after several women described similar events did he finally get arrested. How many inmates have to be assaulted by Department of Justice employees for them to make an arrest?

The future of children in foster homes is not too bright! Why?

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Study after study shows that children in foster care do not grow up to live the most successful and well-adjusted lives. Actually, Instead report after report form the Department of Corrections, the Children’s Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, and many other agencies show that foster care is a failed experiment.

Foster care is meant to help vulnerable children and prevent abuse. Instead, reports continue to come in that show that children in foster care are more likely to be abused, 8% more likely to be abused in a foster home, 28% more likely to be abused in a group home. Statistics are staggering, but let’s look at what is happening to children around the world and how it affects their lives. Just one child being destroyed by foster care is too many.

There is no definition for “family”. HHS workers are just now since the passage of the Family First Preventative Services Act in 2018 beginning to see a definition for family in their own handbooks, and most often the definition does not pertain to biological family but rather adoptive and foster families. As of the beginning of 2020, Arkansas had one paragraph at the end of the handbook that pertained to biological family. The rest of the book instructed workers to place children in foster and adoptive placements and gave tips for how foster and adoptive “parents” should deal with situations with the children passing through their homes.

Not only are the HHS handbooks a joke as far as meeting the needs of children, but courts do not have a definition of “the best interest of the child”. This means that it is up to the court actors to decide what is in a child’s best interest based upon their own opinions. There is no scientific evidence to show that the courts are doing what is best for the children.

Instead, court’s often remove children from biological family and place them with complete strangers. Even when children are placed in the same state, they are often placed hours from family members or anyone that they know. Sometimes children are moved out of state. The result is unhappy children being prescribed psychotropic drugs “to help them cope” with their new life and new “family”. The children often end up running away.

Children that runaway brings me to another point. Runaways, especially runaway youth are sometimes found living in uninhabitable dwellings and even though the Department of State says year after year that foster care is a problem, City Reports continue to show that most 60% at the least number, and sometimes as many as 99%) children rescued through trafficking stings were in state custody when they were trafficked.

Foster children lose everyone and everything they know. 80% of foster children are prescribed drugs to help them cope. They runaway. They end up being homeless or trafficked. And for those that do age out, the Department of Corrections shows that about 75% of them will be incarcerated within two years!

Their futures are not that bright! What are some solutions? (1) Localize foster care so that children do not lose everyone and everything they know, (2) place children with family members and even friends of the family so that they remain in familiar areas, (3) shift the funding to pay for family placements so that children do not have to live with strangers where they have to take prescribed drugs to cope, (4) create programs that teach youth how to apply for college (foster children are eligible for free college tuition though only about 2% will ever apply) (5) create programs that help foster children learn life and job skills, (6) get involved with local churches, legislators, and community organization to create peer support groups where foster children can relate with each other. Let them know that they are not alone.

If anyone else has ideas about how we can improve future generations, please let us know in the comments or send and email through the contact page. Thanks. I hope this helps.

Mental health experts can’t agree on a diagnosis. Jordan could have been Jeremiah.

Jordan Nuñez is slated for a November trial on more than a dozen felony charges, including child abuse resulting in the death of 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia. Nuñez faces life in prison if convicted. Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo

“State District Judge Matthew Wilson sentenced Jordan Nuñez to 21 years in prison Friday for failing to intervene while his father beat and tortured 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia to death in the family’s Nambé home in the fall of 2017,” said Phaedra Haywood, The Santa Fe New Mexican. “Judge Wilson rejected arguments made by Nuñez’s defense attorneys that his sentence should be significantly mitigated due to his traumatic childhood and fear of his father, who officials said told his family if he ever saw the police coming to their home, he would kill them all before officers reached the door”.

“I’m truly sorry for my failure to call 911, that was one of my biggest mistakes,” he said through tears. “That’s something I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life. Lord knows if I could go back and change everything, I would in a heartbeat.”, Jordan told the judge.

“Tommy was the bad guy in all of this while Jordan watched, but that’s the problem. Jordan watched and occasionally participated. He got the benefit of a plea bargain because of his lesser involvement, but even though it was lesser, it was not less. It still resulted in Jeremiah’s death.” First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies told the court.

Tommy was a “bad guy” according to witnesses. He beat Jordan. He beat his ex-wife. Jeremiah’s sister said the abuse “was especially for Jeremiah….It was hard. It was not fun. He (meaning Tommy Ferguson) was always angry and was always being mean to everyone in the house. He would take his anger out on all of us. He would hit us or hit the dogs.”

Valencia’s mother Tracy Pena, 39 (pictured right) told investigators she was forced to help Thomas Ferguson (pictured left) move the boy’s remains but kept quiet about it because she was afraid of Ferguson. Pena was sentenced to 12 years for failing to prevent her son’s abuse and killing in September

Thomas Wayne Ferguson killed himself in the Santa Fe County jail in 2018 while awaiting trial. Prosecutors then turned their focus to Jordan Nuñez accusing him of being a “willing accomplice”. Jeremiah was tortured for weeks before his death. Evidence showed that Jeremiah was punched, speared, shocked,  and confined to a 26×39-inch dog crate.

Jordan is accused of “violently flipping the dog crate” that resulted in the blow that killed Jeremiah.  Jordan said he flipped the to determine if Jeremiah was conscious. In 2020, at the age of 23 years old Jordan Nuñez pleaded guilty to child abuse and two counts of tampering with evidence for his role in the crime.

Jordan’s defense team wanted a lesser sentence for him based on his age and lack of criminal history arguing that he should not do more time than Jeremiah’s mother, Tracy Ann Peña. Peña received a 12-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2018 to one count of child abuse resulting in death and three counts of conspiracy to traffic methamphetamine.

Because Jordan Nunez was a child at the time that Jeremiah was killed, attorney Theresa Duncan showed a court presentation that depicting the size of each person in the household; Tommy Ferguson, Peña, Nuñez, Jeremiah and his sister . It appeared to represent a family of two adults and three children. “It’s clear from this graphic that Tracy Peña and Thomas Ferguson were the real adults in this household,” Duncan said, adding Nuñez and Jeremiah where both victims of their violent father.

“Jordan could have been Jeremiah. Jeremiah could have been Jordan.”, Duncan stated in court. Jeremiah’s family criticized the argument. Family members stated that “The kids in the household were Jeremiah and his sister. Jordan was a grown man. Trying to put him as a child, that’s incorrect. He was capable of doing adult things in the world. Why wouldn’t he be considered an adult?”

13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia was beaten and killed by his mother’s boyfriend, Thomas Ferguson, who killed himself in Santa Fe County jail in 2018.

Jordan’s had just moved to New Mexico from Texas to reunite with his father. His childhood is marked by severe abuse and neglect. Jordan was bounced through more than a dozen homes. Jordan Nunez said a few a things about Jeremiah, “I remember so many things about Jeremiah from just a little bit of time. His NFL team was the Panthers. Logic was his favorite rapper. He loved playing video games. … There was so much more to him, so much more that I wish I got to know.”

A child psychiatrist hired by Jordan Nunez’s attorneys, Dr. Jeffrey Rowe testified that he interviewed babysitters who reported that they often found Jordan and his sister hungry, filthy and with severe diaper rash. “The children really had a rough time that first six years of life”. The children were removed from their biological parents and by age 11 the state of Texas had bounced Jordan through 11 foster homes, shelter, and psychiatric facilities. “He was getting shifted all over the place,” Rowe said. Mental health experts agree that six or more placements causes severe mental health issues that make it difficult to form secure relationships.

Thomas Ferguson broke Jeremiah’s jaw so bad that the bone broke through his gums. Then, Thomas Ferguson confined Jeremiah to the dog crate. That is where psychiatrist disagree about Jordan’s diagnoses. Rowe believes that Jordan seeing Ferguson beat and torture Jeremiah evoked painful memories from Jordan’s own childhood suffered by the same man.

As all children do, after being adopted by his grandparents in2008, once Jordan became old enough, he searched for his parents. He first moved to New Mexico to be with his mother, and then to Nambé to find his father. “Jordan has been looking for somebody who is going to be a father figure, and a mother figure, for many years,” Rowe testified.

But life with Ferguson was worse than most of us can imagine. Prosecutors said the abuse Jeremiah suffered “included beatings, attaching a shock collar around the boy’s thigh, dropping a heavy hammer on his hands and throwing a homemade spear that injured the Jeremiah in several places”.

Jordan’s attorneys argued that he was too afraid of Ferguson to stand up for Jeremiah. But prosecutors disagree and think that Jordan “had opportunities to alert authorities to the abuse, but that he did nothing, and even helped bury the body”. Dr. David Salsberg testified for the prosecution stating that Jordan “had access to a phone, used Facebook frequently and could leave the house”.

Fostered or Forgotten?

It is time to stop the foster care to prison pipeline.

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We have to stop the foster care to prison pipeline. There are people sitting in jails and mental hospitals that do not even know who their family is or where they came from and public defenders and social workers “drop the ball”. Leaving them there with no one to advocate for them, and do you want to know how it almost always ends? It almost always ends in solitary confinement until they kill themselves or a jailer loses it and kills them.

In a related article: Speaking of the foster care to prison pipeline….PBS interviewed Ken Mascara, the sheriff of St. Lucie County in Florida.

Ken Mascara has been the sheriff of St. Lucie County in Florida for the past 20 years. He has seen funding for mental health facilities plummet, and as a result, more and more mentally ill patients end up languishing behind bars. Now, he gives his Brief But Spectacular take on making county jails safer, and smarter.

It is going to take everyone, a village, the legislators, the governors, the presidents, and every day people like you and me to make the world a better place for foster children. As some of you already know from my past reports, more than 80% of the children placed in foster care are “prescribed psychotropic drugs to help them cope”. Once they age out statistics show that 75% of the aged-out youth end up incarcerated within two years. Often because they did not have access to the drugs they were prescribed as children, and they turn to street drugs. They have no family to support them. Most of the time family times are severed and children are moved away from anyone and everything they know. We have to do better!