Picking the Wrong Black Man

By Jonathan Adams Aug 13, 2008

via Stereohyped 1n 1984, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino wrongly identified, Ronald Cotton, an innocent black man, as her rapist, while her guilty black assailant went free. Years later, DNA evidence proved Cotton’s innocence, and he was released. Thompson-Cannino and Cotton are now writing a book together called Picking Cotton. It’s hard to imagine what either person would say to the other in a situation like this. Thompson-Cannino wrote briefly,

By the spring of 1997, the psychological toll forced me to act. In a small church no more then a few miles from where I had been brutally raped, I met Ronald and struggled for words I could say to him. How completely inadequate "I’m sorry" seemed. As Ronald and his new wife, Robbin, came into the room I began to cry and shake. "Ronald, if I spent the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am it wouldn’t be enough," I said. Ronald immediately took my hands and replied, "I forgive you. I want you to be happy and live a good life. Don’t look over your shoulders thinking I will be there because I won’t."

The Innocence Project’s mission has been freeing innocent men many of whom were convicted simply for being Black.

The American Bar Association, meeting in New York, is considering whether to recommend that judges use their discretion to make juries aware of the problems that can plague cross-racial identifications. California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Utah already employ such instructions in some cases. "The majority race is not as good at identifying minorities as it is its own race. This is hard-wired in some way that we don’t completely understand. But the phenomenon should be presented to the jury," said Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project. Prosecutors, however, do not want judges to raise the issue with juries. "This is not an appropriate area for judges to go into," said Josh Marquis, district attorney in Astoria, Ore., and a member of the executive committee of the National District Attorneys Association. "Yes, eyewitness ID across races has its issues. But is there a rampant problem to the degree that we need to get judges to start telling juries this is the law? No."

Over 200 people in the U.S. have had their convictions overturned by DNA evidence. Three-quarters of these cases involved mistaken eyewitness testimony, making it the leading cause of wrongful conviction.