Thursday, March 19, 2009

Innocent mistake, or unjust discrimination?

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old white female student attending Elon College in North Carolina. One night, an African-American man broke into her house during the night and raped her. As he assaulted her, she memorized everything she could about her attacker, anything she could use to identify him, with the intent to survive and imprison him for his crime. Thompson contacted police and gave a description of her attacker, from which a composite sketch was drawn. Her description seemed to fit Ronald Cotton, the man who was eventually imprisoned 11 years for this crime. Cotton had had several minor scrapes with the law, though all corresponding charges had been dismissed. Cotton’s name and mug shot, however, were still placed on file.
After her attack, investigators showed Thompson a number of photos of possible suspects. In their interview on the Today Show, Thompson admitted that her mind was trying to find the person in the group who most closely resembled the sketch she had helped the police artist draw, rather than her actual attacker. Thompson picked Cotton not only from the suspect photos, but also in a physical lineup, stating she was “100 percent certain” he was her attacker.
Cotton was sentenced and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. During many of those years in prison, Cotton actually knew who the real rapist was; a man by the name of Bobby Poole, and he’d landed in the same prison as Cotton. According to the article, “the two bore a striking physical resemblance to one another, and to the police sketch of Thompson’s attacker.”
With this information Cotton was granted a retrial three years after his initial imprisonment, but Thompson’s memory by now had firmly replaced her rapist’s face with that of Cotton. When she saw both Poole and Cotton in the same courtroom, she again identified Cotton as her rapist with absolute certainty.
Cotton continued to serve his sentence, trying to keep himself together, which he stated “wasn’t easy at all. I was missing my family, my loved ones. I took it day to day and hoped that true justice would prevail and open a door for me.” In 1995, when watching the O.J. Simpson trial, Cotton learned about the use of DNA evidence and contacted his attorneys, who were able to prove, after recovering one tiny sample of sperm from Thompson's rape kit, that Cotton was innocent and Poole was guilty. Cotton was a free man and began the difficult task of creating a new life. Despite receiving money in compensation from the state of North Carolina, he worked two jobs to get himself back on his feet.
Thompson was “torn apart by the revelation that her dead-certain testimony had imprisoned an innocent man” and was terrified that he was going to seek vengeance on her and her family. She lived in fear of retaliation for two years before finally reaching out to Cotton. When they met, he quickly relieved her of her guilt, simply stating that he had forgiven her long ago.
Conflict theorists would have a field day with this. How do you think they would respond? Do you think that this situation occurred because we as a society are taught to expect aggressive criminal behavior from black men, or was it simply a case of mistaken identity? What could be said that caused not only this man’s wrongful conviction, but his continued imprisonment for over a decade? Is it an irreparable problem with our criminal justice system, an unfortunate but unavoidable and, perhaps, necessary consequence - as a structural functionalist would view it -or is it a form of predictable, unjust discrimination? How would you explain how Cotton was so easily prosecuted and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit? Can an argument be made that he would have received the same sentence had he been a white man, or if the victim had not been a white woman? Would this be such a "heart-warming story" if Cotton had been a white man wrongfully imprisoned, or is this a crime of injustice and an example of the failure and racism inherent in our criminal justice system?

“She sent him to jail for rape; now they’re friends.”


  1. From the structural functionalism view, the big machine needs the justice system to keep the society stable. But again, our society is blended with various problems; racism is one of them. Since the system itself is imperfect, the mistakes made by the justice system are unavoidable.

    Looking at the event, I couldn’t ignore the time when it happened. In the 1980s people were not as educated as they are today. Stereotypes against black people had been passed along; being afraid of black people was common among white people. That is one reason for why Cotton was easily prosecuted and imprisoned.

    Society keeps developing, therefore the structures changes to fit the needs. Technology once again played an important role here in this event. Media had its effect too. Cotton learned the fact about DNA through media and made his way out.

  2. I agree with Ever. So many variables had an impact on this situation and the media was one of them since it gave him the information about the DA used in the trial against OJ. While a structrual functionalist would argue that we need the justic system to keep society runing in a systematic sort of way. And yes, chaos could break out and we could all go spinning into a whirl wind without it, the prosecution of an innocent man; all compliments of that specific institution, what would a structural functionalist say about that? CPC would argue on the basis of the elite and the power they hold. It is a privileage of the oppressor to dish out these false ideologies about individuals so that society then places them in a location on the ladder of hierarchy. While looking for my article to place online last night, I paid alot of attention to the journalistic side of sociology. Color was mentioned first and formost if the offender was black or native or asian. In response to sociologigiI doubt that a white man would have gotten the same senatce as cotton. Perhaps he had if were he guilty, but would the system have gone through more work to determine if he were or not? What resources would he have had at his disposal during the process? Higher paid lawyers? Access to the media? Sociologically, the list could go on...

  3. It would be interesting to analyze Cotton's situation after he was released from prison and was compensated (by state standards) for his 11 wrongful years of internment. After being violently pulled from his family, livelihood, and community for over a decade, he is thrown back into society and expected to start over from scratch. If he doesn't succeed, it would be seen as an individual fault, not a problem with the institution of justice (lack of rehabilitation services, lack of job training, stigmatization, financially disadvantaging the criminalized through fines or lack of job security when let out). It is also interesting that although he was "compensated" for his time in prison, he still had to work two jobs to make ends meet (sociologigi told me this) which points to how the compensation was probably minuscule in comparison to the 11 years he could have been working/saving/investing or whatnot. It is intriguing to see how the justice system deals with mistakes made on their part because the detained are thrown back into society as if the prison term never existed. They are expected to return to their previous "normal" lives which are in fact ruined or strained because of this mistake.

    I also wonder how many convicted rapists are actually innocent because of the bias towards trusting the victim to identify their assailants. During an event of great stress, perhaps more women have acted as Thompson had.

  4. I think that's an excellent point, Tanabata, about the bias towards trusting victim's supposedly perfect memories. Thompson-Cannino's talk of being completely certain in her selection of the suspect and also of comparing him not to her memory, but to the police sketch demonstrate a great deal about how people unconsciously fill in gaps in their knowledge of social reality, and thus create their own on a daily basis (Although, what rotten luck, Poole and Cotton really are uncannily similar).

    This doesn't usually cause too much trouble, but inevitably, somebody's life hinges on someone's incorrect interpretation of reality. And in a society that values justice, mistakes like this are hard to reconcile. It's also easy to see how if enough mistakes like this are made in a specific direction... then you'll have disproportionate imprisonment rates for minorities. Our criminal justice system no doubt thrives on these sorts of things. As long as someone goes to jail, the police are trusted with power and authority.

  5. I think what ever’s answer implies is that the stereotype of the aggressive, dangerous black man is one that is no longer held by the majority of people in this country, a notion I strongly disagree with. By saying that “people were not as educated as they are today” insinuates that people are now educated and no longer agree with this stereotype; however a strong case can be made that this stereotype continues to be very prevalent in society. Look at any crime show – Law and Order (any one of the many series), NCIS, CSI, etc., they all continue to perpetuate the idea of the criminally prone, dangerous minority, whom we should all fear and seek out excessive ways to ensure our safety… By saying that it was the 80s and people were merely uneducated is to say that, since we are now “educated,” this type of situation would no longer occur. I find this to be highly unlikely. Although DNA evidence is more readily available and commonly used and would, therefore, more rapidly exonerate an alleged criminal, I think that people would still promptly accept that a black man accused of a crime would be very likely to have committed the offense, merely based on his race, and their predetermined presumptions of that race’s propensity for crime.
    I think a very important point is being overlooked in this situation. The article, as well as snowflake, mentioned how unfortunate it was that Cotton “bore a strikingly similar resemblance” to the actual attacker, but after looking at the comparison of Cotton and Poole’s mug shots, they look nothing alike! (I tried to post the photo but my computer illiteracy knows no bounds…) The only similarity they shared was that they were both Black. Is that all we need to put somebody in jail? What kind of system would allow for such an affront to the very concept of justice? Because Cotton shared little more than the same ethnicity as the actual attacker, he was wrongly accused and imprisoned for 11 years. By structural functionalists saying that the system is imperfect and therefore mistakes are unavoidable is metaphorically shrugging one’s shoulders at a very serious problem, and I believe that it is the duty of all to ensure equality before the law, as well as from undue prosecution, no matter what an individual’s specific circumstance.

  6. Oh, did I not make myself clear? For the current society, I do see the running stereotypes about black people, especially agressive black men.

    But compare what we know today and what they knew back in the 1980s, I do see progresses that people, as human beings have made.

  7. Seeing the same image as sociologigi (which I also cannot for the life of me figure out how to post in this, I'm disappointed about it. She's completely right - the only real similarity between the two is the fact that they're black. This alone should show that, although we would hope for progress, our society really hasn't displayed all that much - a minority is still a minority to our media and to society as a whole. Is it really so much that we've progressed at all so much as moved on to a different minority group to blatantly be disgusted with? I know. Not really a hopeful thought.
    As far as argument between the two paradigms, I think the structural functionalists are probably nodding their heads thinking that in this case, the system worked for the most part, though it probably took a bit longer than Cotton would have liked (say, eleven years or so . . .) but he was compensated, so . . .
    I don't think I believe that side of it so much as the side that here was another instance where someone was done a major disservice because of one girl who, understandably, was in shock and was simply trying to make sure her attacker was taken care of so she wouldn't have to worry anymore. Although the system is flawed big time in letting people waste eleven years in it and then compensates them so small that they have to take up two jobs in order to make a living, it is still far better than the system that takes in a number of innocent and determines that they must be guilty for something, like so many other justice systems out there.

  8. Sociologigi - images addition:
    Go to the "Edit blog", pick this topic as "edit". At the top of the listing of font sizes, etc. is a little picture of a mountain, etc. You can attach the picture from there. :)

  9. Yes, Ever, Cotton made his way out but at what expense. So many haven't. After the Rosewood Massacre in 1923 we heard the same thing, people just weren't educated. Ater, the situation occurs once again we will more than likely hear these same words in the next 50-60 years. While I agree that the evolution of society is good, the change in structures doesn't always fit the need. It often holds on to what is familiar: inequalities, biases and stereotypes. I was amazed at this irony: Thompson lived in fear of retaliation by Cotton!!! She held his life in her hands and destroyed segments of it. Once again she viewed Cotton as the stereotypical, angry agressive black man. And I agree, the two men looked nothing a like besides the dark skin.

  10. Before DNA testing, the only way for the police to identify rapists would have been through the victim identifying their attacker. I do not think it was a bias the police had about the victim being able to identify their attacker. The problem is the methods the police used. Our justice system has racism built in the structure of it. Although it may not be blatently obvious, its still there. It is unfortunate that Mr Cotton was the one to save himself in this case. He learned of DNA testing on tv and it was he who fought to get the testing done. The compensation he recieved when he was released was clearly miniscule. He was in prison for eleven years, does our society not see this as a major flaw in the system! If he had been white, would there have been more of an uproar about the injustice done to him?

  11. I agree with gg and drama mama's comments about this article.“bore a strikingly similar resemblance” to the actual attacker". The two looked nothing alike! As many others have commented, the ONLY feature they had in common was that they were both black! The fact that our society let him stay in jail for 11 years is disturbing! I agree with shopaholic.... would this happen to a white male? Most likely not!Becuase white males are at the top of our society's power hierarchy therefore i do beleive there would have been more of an uproar about the injustice. I also agree with drama mamas comments about the evolution of society is good, yet our institutions are not always changing with it. As long as inequalities, biases and stereotypes still are present in our institutions, it will take longer for equality.

  12. I think it was an unfortunate case of honest mistaken identity because of a pre-conditioned generalized notion about black people and the need to have justice be served for a victim.

    The oppressed (uneducated and ignorant of the machines running the judicial show) are easily controlled and overwhelmed from individuals or institutions. Until Cotton became a bit more educated about the judicial system on innocence through biology (DNA testing) did he finally find his chance for freedom.

    Current issues denote that societal justice is not a priority but a fledgling growing in strength amongst wolves as is the case of the AIG conflict. Until the ruling institutions start taking responsibility of their own failings will we finally see justice fitting of the injustice.

  13. This was an especially good discussion! Comments are now closed. Good work, ya'll.