The Persistence of Memory…Or Not

Sunday on 60 Minutes there was an episode about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony.  A white woman who was raped identified a black man named Ronald Cotton as her attacker.  During the attack, she spent her time memorizing every feature she could about her rapist.  Eventually, she identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker in both a photo lineup and a physical lineup.  He was convicted.  She says outright that she hoped he would be raped in prison, and then killed.  Mr. Cotton said he was innocent. 

Then, while in prison, Mr. Cotton learned there was a person who had just been admitted, who had confessed to raping the victim in his case.  There was a new trial.  The victim, sitting in the courtroom, faced with both Mr. Cotton and the new suspect (who did look a lot like him, as Cotton admits), a guy named Poole, resolutely identified Mr. Cotton as her rapist.  He was convicted again, this time if I’m not mistaken, sentenced to two life terms. She was totally sure it was him. 

The only thing was, it wasn’t him.  It was Poole.  The whole thing happened prior to DNA testing, but once it was done, it was proved that Poole was the guy, and Cotton was released.  By this time, he had spent 11 years in prison for something he didn’t do.  The victim was in shock.  She asked to meet him.  She said, If I asked you every day for the rest of my life to forgive me, I will never be able to repay you.  And he said, “I forgive you right now.” 

Now the victim and Cotton are touring the country together, talking to law enforcement about the danger of relying too much on eyewitness testimony.  They have written a book together, entitled Picking Cotton.  An unfortunate title if you ask me, but perhaps they chose it precisely for its shock value.    Stress interferes with memory, and that’s been known for a long time.  No matter how hard she tried, the victim wasn’t really able to “remember” accurately. 

Before you start to think this is a case of white women thinking all black men look alike, consider that much of the program then showed research on the issue, which had men and women trying to identify the faces of mostly white men which had been slightly altered.  The face may have looked the same, but the eyes were slanted upwards instead of down, or some other subtle alteration of that nature.  The reporter, Leslie Stahl, failed the test. 

Back in the ’70’s, my friend and great love Art, who was a psychology professor, did a class which almost got him fired.  He arranged for an acting student to “shoot” him and his co-professor during class.  My roommate and I were in on the deal.  I got to help, the week before, selecting the fake blood they would use, which would be kept in a packet in their shirt pockets that they could smack and burst open when they were “shot”.  Ketchup did not work.  In the end we concluded that the chicken blood they got from a butcher was the most realistic. 

This actually was a re-creation of an experiment that had already been performed at another school.  While my job was to help select the “blood”, my roommate’s job was to start screaming after the “shooting” and create hysteria.  The “shooter” was a black actor (the students were mostly white, so that by itself should have made him stand out) who was outrageously dressed—you know, plaid pants, striped shirt, funny hat, outrageous colors.  The plan after the “shooting” was to have the students describe him. 

As you might guess, this went horribly wrong.  My part in it shames me to this day.  Seemed like harmless fun at the time.  Once my roommate screamed, it was absolute pandemonium.  There was a stampede.  The event took place in an auditorium that sat perhaps 300 students, and it was  jam-packed.  Art was a very popular teacher.  The “shooter” ran out the door at the bottom of the auditorium, then, as instructed, he ran up the stairs to come in the back door of the auditorium, where he met possibly the only person who remembered what he looked like, and she literally almost died of fright.  She dropped out.  Her parents sued the school. 

Some students were rounded up (there were teaching assistants outside the doors to head off mass panic, saying go back in, it isn’t real, they’re not really dead).   The remaining students were asked to describe the “shooter”, and no one could.  I’m talking no one.  He was black, he was white.  He was wearing a hat, he wasn’t wearing a hat.  He had a beard, he was clean-shaven.  His shirt was blue, it was white. 

So I’m talking 30 years ago.  Why are the courts still using eyewitness testimony from people who’ve been traumatized?  That was addressed too.  Eyewitness testimony remains very important, but it’s value seems to be greater and more reliable if you were not the victim but were a witness to the crime.  I can personally testify to the truth of that.  I was once robbed at gunpoint.  That sort of thing focuses the mind.  I thought I woud never forget the guy, but later all I could remember was his teeth and his gun.  In court, I would not say that it was the guy they arrested.  The prosecutor was very mad at me.  But a guy who worked for me, who was never threatened, said, it’s him.  And he was convicted. 

This story was like many stories in one.  On one hand it was about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, but it was also about the power of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is really hard, and there are always those who will say that Ronald Cotton is being a sap.  But forgiveness has to start somewhere, and only the wronged can give it.  There is power in that.

5 responses to “The Persistence of Memory…Or Not

  1. I forgive you for writing this blog! LOL Seriously “Picking Cotton” is a horrible name for the book and yes Mr. Cotton is a sap!

  2. I read about that.

    Eyewitness testimony under *any* circumstances is highly suspect, especially when IDing someone of a different ethnic group. I would never convict on eyewitness testimony alone. There needs to be other physical evidence such as DNA, fingerprints, etc.

  3. Well Picking Cotton is a clever pun on words and in this case a clever and compelling metaphor to the tragic relaity.

    FN your classroom adventure is too funny. It would make a good Columbo episode using it as the beginning but contriving an actual crime during the course of the event. ie the professor goes and does the crime while the class is in total chaos and thus provides him with an alibi. Since Columbo was a homicide dick then the crime would have to be murder. So he murders you becuase he is married and you are a threat. So of course Columbo catches him because he………… “Gives Enough Rope.”

  4. Wait a damn minute there, Pt! I was all into the story until I found out who the victim was going to be 🙂

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