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Student Number: 16019265

Case Study Analysis

In July 1984, Jennifer Thompson, a 22-year-old college student living in Burlington,
North Carolina, was burgled and sexually assaulted, after a man broke into her
apartment and severed the phone lines. One hour after this, another apartment was
broken into, with the same happening to the woman who lived there. The attacks were
believed to have been committed by the same person. The second victim was unable
to recall her attacker’s face, but Thompson made a deliberate point of studying the
assailant. With the police, she created a composite image of her attacker.
Thompson was then shown a photo line-up, where she proceeded to pick the photo of
Ronald Cotton. Cotton, along with six others, was brought before her in an in-person
line-up. Thompson picked number five of the line-up, which was Ronald Cotton. As
the victim had now picked Cotton in both a photo and in person line-up, the police
were confident that the right man had been found.
On the 1st of August 1984, Ronald Cotton was charged for the rapes. He had a record
of burglary arrests, and had previously spent 18 months in prison for an attempted
sexual assault. (This assault, he claimed, was consensual, and he had been
victimised.) In the January of the next year, a jury convicted Cotton of one count of
rape and one count of burglary, as the second victim couldn’t identify her attacker.
Thompson however, had continued to stand by her claim, stating in court, that Cotton
was definitely the man who had raped her. Her confidence was the main ground for
conviction. Cotton claimed his innocence all the way through the proceedings.
While in prison, Cotton came into possession of information stating that another
inmate of the prison, Bobby Poole, had committed the crimes that Cotton was
convicted of.
Another trial in 1987, 3 years after the crime, and 2 years after the conviction, bought
the second victim forward, as well as include Bobby Poole, who was made to attend
by Cotton’s lawyer. However, the second victim was now identifying Cotton as her
attacker, and Thompson was as confident in her assertions as she had ever been,
looking at both men, and confirming that Cotton was the man who’d raped her. With
the testimony of both victims, Cotton was convicted of both rapes, and sentenced to
life plus 54 years.
In 1994, new lawyers took the case. Burlington Police Department handed over all the
evidence, including a sample of the assailant’s semen for DNA testing, which had
been unavailable at the time of the conviction. The sample revealed no match to
Cotton, but did match with Bobby Poole.
On the 30th of June 1995, Cotton was released, and pardoned, after over ten years in
This case analysis will cover the system variables found in eyewitness evidence, and
the role of the jury in a criminal case, specifically, how the case of Ronald Cotton was
handled, and what could have been done in a better way.

as both types of line-up are important. most of the evidence was circumstantial. Thompson may have chosen him in a (maybe subconscious) way to end the line-up. of which there was nothing in-circumstantial. as well as all being the same build etc. were Thompson’s confidence. There are many ways that the line-up in the case could have been handled better. With no true evidence. They were all dressed differently. Their physical characteristics were not the only thing that should have been done with better care. at the very least. In short. because Jennifer Thompson had already viewed Ronald Cotton’s picture in a photo line-up. with each man standing out for some reason. height. naturally. the participants of the line-up should have been all of the same build. It’s not just the defendant’s demeanour that can influence a jury. and therefore. it was too easy for the victim to differentiate between them. The main points that aided the jurors in finding him guilty. as Cotton was innocent. If they were all dressed the same. which made him seem increasingly guilty to the jury. In the trail. If they had been properly aware of this. but in this case. then they might have based their decision around other evidence. It was simultaneous. While this last point may have equalled out the effect on the victim. and in some cases. He didn’t react to anything throughout the trial. While this particular problem is hard to mitigate. they were not all of the same build or stature. the only solid information that the jurors had to work with was Thompson’s testimony. It is also down to witness confidence as well. not of an uncontrollable situation. The next point that needs addressing in this case analysis. which is not always a bad way of conducting a line-up. and Cotton’s facial expressions in regards to his emotions. no matter how confident the witness is. which could have resulted in an innocent man not going to prison for almost 11 years. insofar as possible. There is also the emotional state of the victim to consider. (2005). with each man dressed differently. It was not well executed. as the point of it was to have Thompson pick pout the right person. Cotton’s face never changed through the whole of the proceedings. According to Posey & Wrightsman. and. An unemotional state does not indicate guilt. they should have been as close to Ronald Cotton’s clones as the police were feasibly capable of finding. is that of how the jury handled their decisions. there was nothing separating the victim from the men of the line-up. Cotton was on trial for a hideous crime he had not committed – shock would be the most likely factor for his lack of outword emotional responses. as stated above. and was then made to sit in the same room as her potential assailant. It can indicate shock. She had been through a serious ordeal. with all the participants before the victim at the same time.Student Number: 16019265 The failure to undertake a line-up correctly is known as a system variable. something that is the fault of the people involved. The jury should have been made aware that it was up to them to use all the evidence . she already recognised his face. a necessity. so as to ensure that she did not have to be in the same room with the man that she believed had attacked her. The victim should have been behind glass. as. The jury should have been warned that eyewitness accounts are not always accurate. and hair style. which hindsight reveals is false. The stress of having to be in that situation could have rushed her. was not handled well. he was the man she focused on. While all the men were African-American. which could have added to her choice. then the line-up would have been successful in achieving fairness to all involved. but it is easy to be sure of an individual when everyone looks different from each other. During the process. recognising Cotton from his mugshot photo.

if not fully confirmed. The justice system needs to be based on more than what people seem to be in a certain situation. If the jury knew how to handle the given information. There are many things that could have caused his reaction. It took the jailing of an innocent man for 10 ½ years before these failings were revealed. The police failed to ensure that the line- up was appropriate. and evidence that is not always accurate. a layperson on the jury likely does not. this is the fault of the court system. Cotton would likely have never been convicted. as. while a judge and lawyers know this to be true. would have fixed this issue.Student Number: 16019265 provided. just because something seems to be the key evidence. Ultimately. he was convicted on the wrong reasons. Keeping the victims and the suspects separate during the proceedings. because. the case was not handled well. but it can be summarised with the jury’s blindness to the fact that all the other evidence was circumstantial. as revealed. innocent or otherwise. The fault lies with the fact that this human bias and error is not explained to the necessary people so they can avoid making these mistakes. given by his family. In conclusion. Even if he had proved to be guilty. and to blame it on guilt is making connotations that had no place deciding on the fate of a man. it would aid in mitigating these issues. and that Cotton had alibis. The fact that Cotton was ultimately innocent matters little. not just the strongest seeming. The jury should have been made aware that eyewitness accounts are not always reliable. If courts explained this as standard. it doesn’t necessarily mean it is accurate. and that the victims knew that the assailant might not be (and ultimately wasn’t) in the line. . The jury should also have not used the emotional state of the defendant as evidence. and ensuring that they all looked similar.