In a 2000 New York Times article,
1 rape victim Jennifer Thompson shared her memories from the experience she survived in 1984:
I was a 22-year-old college student in North Carolina, with a
grade point average of 4.0, and I really wanted to do something
with my life. One night someone broke into my apartment, put
a knife to my throat and raped me.
During the ordeal, some of my determination took an urgent
new direction. I studied every single detail on the rapist’s face.
I looked at his hairline; I looked for scars, for tattoos, for anything that would help me identify him. When and if I survived
the attack, I was going to make sure that he was put in prison
and he was going to rot.
When I went to the police department later that day, I
worked on a composite sketch to the very best of my ability. I
looked through hundreds of noses and eyes and eyebrows and
hairlines and nostrils and lips. Several days later, looking at a
series of police photos, I identified my attacker. I knew this was
the man. I was completely confident. I was sure.
Based on her testimony, Ronald Junior Cotton was sentenced
Eyewitness identification in Washington
to life in prison for rape. A fellow inmate, Bobby Poole,
claimed to be the attacker, but Thompson told a court in 1987,
“I have never seen him [Poole] in my life. I have no idea who
After Cotton had served 11 years in jail, DNA tests proved
that he did not rape Thompson, and that it was Poole, who
pleaded guilty to rape. Thompson wrote:
The man I was so sure I had never seen in my life was the man
who was inches from my throat, who raped me, who hurt me,
who took my spirit away, who robbed me of my soul. And the
man I had identified so emphatically on so many occasions
was absolutely innocent.
We now know that eyewitness identifications are sometimes
fraught with imprecision. Indeed, the Washington Supreme
Court has recognized as much: “Riofta and amicus correctly
argue that mistaken eyewitness identification is a leading
cause of wrongful conviction.” Brandon L. Garrett, "Judging
Innocence," 108 Colum. L.Rev. 55, 60 (2008). (“The vast majority of [studied] exonerees (79%) were convicted based on
eyewitness testimony; we now know that all of these eyewit-nesses were incorrect.”) (State v. Riofta, 166 Wash.2d 358, 371,
209 P.3d 467 (2009.))
While studies have revealed that there are a number of different reasons for this imprecision, the question remains, have
trial courts been part of the problem? In other words, is the bar
for the admission of eyewitness identification set too low? The