An op-ed piece in the New York Times published two years ago is as relevant today as it was then. It was written by a woman named Jennifer Thompson and begins like this:
“In 1984 I was a 22-year-old college student 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 my 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 . . .
“When the case went to trial in 1986, I stood up on the stand, put my hand on the Bible and swore to tell the truth. Based on my testimony, Ronald Junior Cotton was sentenced to prison for life . . .But Jennifer Thompson was wrong. When authorities finally did a DNA test a decade later, they discovered Ronald Cotton was innocent. The African-American man had spent a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit.
DNA testing has the power to dramatically reduce the number of people who are wrongly imprisoned, but police departments around the country are slow to do the tests and in some cases even destroy evidence.
In Los Angeles, it recently emerged that LAPD officials "accidentally" destroyed biological evidence in over a thousand sexual assault cases since 1995. Tomorrow, rape survivors, the wrongly convicted, and supporters plan to rally outside the Los Angeles Police Department in protest.
Today, the New York Times is reporting on its front page about another man who has spent over a decade in prison after being convicted of rape and, in this case, murder. His lawyer plans to present DNA evidence today, proving that Eddie Joe Lloyd is innocent. Lloyd was in a mental hospital at the time of his arrest. He says the detective gave him the details of the case and told him to confess, in order to smoke out the real killer.
- Jennifer Thomson, rape survivor who mistakenly identified Ronald Cotton as her rapist. Cotton spent 11 years in a North Carolina prison before he was exonerated by DNA testing.
- Ronald Cotton, wrongly identified as a rapist, spent 11 years in prison until he was exonerated by DNA testing.
- Karen Pomer, a founding member of the Rainbow Sisters Project, a Los Angeles-based group that lobbies and educates on behalf of rape survivors. She was unable to identify her rapist. E-mail: Rbsistersproject@aol.com
- Christopher Plourd, San Diego attorney and DNA expert. He helps train police officers around the country. He represented Ray Krone, the 100th person to be exonerated based on DNA evidence. He is also on the Justice Department’s National Commission on the future of DNA Evidence.