She wanted to be positive. Although she quickly eliminated four of the men, she took 4 to 5 minutes trying to decide between two others. Then she picked up Cotton's photo.
THOMPSON: This is the man who did this.
POLICE: Are you sure?
THOMPSON: I'm positive.
POLICE: We thought that was the guy.
Later, after a live lineup in which Thompson chose Cotton again, she asked if she did okay. An officer said, "You did great, that was the guy you picked out in the photo lineup."
With this positive feedback, Thompson felt 100% positive of her identification by the time the case went to trial. Her strong, believable ID is what sent Cotton to prison for rape. It took 11 years before DNA exonerated him and led law enforcement to Bobby Poole, the actual rapist.
Since then, Thompson and Cotton have co-authored a book, PICKING COTTON. You can view the video Getting it Right: Eyewitness ID with both of them and the police chief who worked the case at the Innocence Project website.
Although Thompson had been told that her attacker might not be among the photographs, she felt compelled to do her part to take a rapist off the streets. She couldn't do it quickly despite research findings that the strongest memories are the easiest/quickest to retrieve (Economist.com). Thompson, a Caucasian, struggled to identify her Black attacker. Studies have shown that people have more difficulty distinguishing faces of people of other races (Salon.com). She studied two of the photos until she chose one as her attacker.
No one asked Thompson how certain she was of that first ID before proceeding. Instead, she was relieved to be told that she'd picked the "right" man. Police officers, family members, and even other witnesses can unconsciously shape a witness's memory and influence his/her level of certainty (Salon.com).
Research suggests that lineups should be double-blind and administered sequentially (See blog: Your Lying Eyes: How to Improve Police Lineups), neither of which were done in this case. Let's look into the roll that positive affirmations play on eyewitness testimony.
A study reported in Psychological Science, found that confirming feedback led witnesses to not only feel better about their identification/misidentification (the murderer's photo was not in the lineup), but it also distorted their memory of how confident they had been initially and how good of a look at the perpetrator they believed they'd gotten.
Of "the eyewitnesses given positive feedback - 50% rated their confidence at either a 6 or 7 on a 7-point scale." In addition 47% of those getting positive feedback thought the grainy security camera footage was clear (6 or 7 on the 7-point scale). In contrast, of those who got negative feedback, only 15% rated their confidence high, and none of them thought the poor footage was clear (PSYBLOG).
Witnesses should make a statement about their level of confidence in their own words. "The legal system should...collect the primary dependent measures (confidence information and other statements) from the eyewitnesses prior to debriefing them regarding the status of the identified person" (Psychology.iastate.edu).
Itiel Dror, cognitive neuroscientist with the University College of London, stated that psychological research has shown "time and time again no correlation between confidence and accuracy" (Salon.com) Yet, confidence sells an identification to juries.
Changes to police procedures have been slow in the US and in the UK (PSYBLOG). Law enforcement agencies are getting more pressure to adopt policies on eyewitness identifications which are supported by research (Officer.com). The following procedures, excerpted from Wisconsin's Model Policy and Procedure for Eyewitness Identification, were developed in an attempt to minimize eyewitness errors and secure court-admissible identifications.
- Utilize non-suspect fillers chosen to minimize any suggestiveness that might point toward the suspect;
- Utilize a 'double blind' procedure, in which the administrator is not in a position to unintentionally influence the witness's selection;
- Give eyewitnesses an instruction that the real perpetrator may or may not be present and that the administrator does not know which person is the suspect;
- Present the suspect and the fillers sequentially (one at a time) rather than simultaneioulsy (all at once). This discourages relative judgment and encourages absolute judgments of each person presented, because eyewitnesses are unable to see the subjects all at once and are unable to know when they have seen the last subject;
- Assess eyewitness confidence immediately after identification;
- Avoid multiple identification procedures in which the same witness views the same suspect more than once.
In addition to those practices, the Innocence Project also recommends that lineup procedures be videotaped. This protects innocent suspects and also documents legitimate police procedures. "Officers should also be prepared to articulate in court how the procedures they used ensure the greatest reliability of the eyewitness evidence gathered" (Officer.com).In the future, most lineups may be conducted on computers to further remove human influence.
Our judicial system may place too much weight on eyewitness testimony...especially when it runs counter to more tangible evidence. Even an honest eyewitness ID, like that of Jennifer Thompson, can be completely wrong. We must eliminate practices that we know can lead to miscarriages of justice.
- Dean, Jeremy, "Wrongful Conviction: 50% of Mistaken Eyewitnesses Certain after Positive Feedback," PSYBLOG, February 6, 2008.
- Economist, "Unusual Suspects: How to Make Witnesses More Reliable," The Economist, March 3, 2012.
- Russell, Sue, "Why Police Lineups Can't be Trusted," Salon.com, September 29, 2012.
- Van Brocklin, Val, "Defending Your Lineup in Court," Officer.com, July 18, 2011.
- Wells, Gary L, and Amy L. Bradfield, "Distortions in Eyewitnesses' Recollections: Can the Post-identification Feedback Effect be Moderated?" Psychological Science, 1999.