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Theme of Rape In “Picking Cotton”



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    Details in our lives become less and less important every single day, but what happens when we are to encounter a traumatic experience such as a kidnapping, murder, fight or rape. Our minds go blank, our hearts start pumping blood to every vital organ, and we prepare our selves for the flight or fight. In the case of Jennifer Thompson, she prepared for the fight and was determined not to be murdered by her rapist. As she cleared her mind, Jennifer tried to memorize every facial feature or distinct markings on her rapist.

    She wanted to make sure she encoded everything she was seeing and hearing from her assailant, but what happens when other factors alter your memories. Things such as unconscious transference, weapon focus, cross race bias or how the eye witness was questioned can play a big factor on how memories are recalled from the eye witness. These factors played a big role in Ronald Cotton’s sentencing and cost him 11 agonizing years in prison.

    Many believe that once we encode something in our minds it is there for ever and there is nothing that can alter or change our memory of the event, but we are wrong. Like in the case of Jennifer Thompson, she was so positive that Ronald Cotton was her assailant, she had identified him in a photo line up after describing him to a Forensic Sketch artist, and again identified him in a line up. During these two occasions, the officer’s in the case gave Jennifer assured her that she was doing great.

    This gave Jennifer more reassurance and confidence that she had chosen the right man, but she had not. Previous studies on post identification feedback show that “witnesses who received confirming feedback (versus no feedback) as having paid more attention, having had a better view, being better able to identify strangers, and being more confident at the time of the identification. ” (Douglass et. al. , 2010, p. 287).

    Thus Jennifer’s second and third time around identifying Ronald Cotton as her rapist was skewed by the detectives feedback even though the second victim in the case was not able to identify Ronald Cotton as her rapist. The detectives believed they had the man who was allegedly responsible for the rapes in the town and unknowingly contributing to the incarceration of an innocent man. Additionally, previous studies suggest that “accurate witnesses become vulnerable to confirming feedback effects when queried about their certainty and other reports after a 1-week delay” (Quinlivan et. l. , 2012, p. 212). Jennifer Thompson’s line up was exactly 11 days after her rape and could have had unconscious transference and having the confirming feedback in the photo identification help her have the confidence she needed to get the assailant in the line up. Jennifer was afraid even if she was previously reassured by one of the detective, that everything was going to be fine and nothing was going to happen to, “

    He knew my name. If he was here, I couldn’t screw this up”, Jennifer stated. Thompson, p. 36). She was determined and so was everyone else in the case, the fact that she had seen a sketch of her rapist skewed her memory. Her memory of the assailant was similar to Cotton, but had noticeable differences. The unconscious transference from the sketch drawn and the picture shown in the photo line up led to a new memory trace that encoded over the original memory of her rapist, giving her no choice but to choose the man whom she thought looked like they man she pictured in her mind.

    Having a memory from a eye witness that has been affected by unconscious transference should not be used as evidence, previous studies show that “subjects were nearly three times more likely to misidentify the bystander than control subjects, and a majority of them thought that the assailant and the bystander were the same person seen in two different places” (Ross et. al. , 1994, p. 927). Additionally, to having these factors play a big role on your memory, cross-race effect can also factor in on the decision Jennifer Thompson made that day.

    Racism is a major part of everyone’s lives, like it or not, this country comes from many years of struggle with racism and is still in our every day lives. In Jennifer Thompson’s case, she happened to be a Caucasian young woman that was raped and held at knife point by an African American. We are more likely to send an innocent person from another race to jail than one from our same race. We tend to categorize people and distinguish different races by their facial features, such as Chinese by their slanted eyes, Africans Americans, by their noses and color of their skin.

    We also tend to categorize them into stereotypes, we classify African Americans to have higher crime rates, be in gangs and be the trouble makers while on the other hand we tend to categorize Caucasians as nice, non violent, and less likely to be involved in any crime activity. So when a white woman described her attacker as an African- American man, there was not stopping anyone in finding justice for Jennifer Thompson. Many African-Americans have the same key facial features someone would be more likely to remember.

    It is stated that we studied our own race’s features in greater detail and in other races we pay “less attention to the shape of their face, color of their skin and hair texture” (Costanzo & Krauss, 2012, p. 146). Previous research of Scheck, Neufeld, and Dwyer (2000) found that “77 mistaken eyewitness identifications, reported that 35% were cases of White victim-witnesses misidentifying Black suspects, whereas only 28% were cases of White victims misidentifying White suspect. ” Racism has a key role in the process of the legal system.

    There is stereo typing in the initial investigation that leaks into the court room having influence on the jurors deciding the case. Cross-race effect does not only affect the victim but everyone who is involved with the case. Previous studies show that jurors are more likely to give creditability to a white eyewitness than to a black eyewitness (Abshire & Bornstein, 2003). Additionally, Abshire & Bornstein (2003) suggest that jurors were influenced by the cross-race effect which shows that “51. % of the White mock jurors rendered a guilty verdict, versus 27. 7% of the Black mock jurors. ” Ronald Cotton had no hope, they had a key eye witness that they believed was beyond positive she had identified her rapist. Even with no key scientific evidence linking him to the crime such as a type of DNA, like blood, skin or hair, Ronald Cotton’s faith relied solely on his alleged victim. Ronald Cotton was convicted and sentenced to prison, where he would start his battle with an appeal case and the start of DNA testing.

    When this case was brought to trial, there had been no finger prints, pubic hair or any skin found on Jennifer Thompson or around the crime scene, so how do we get a conviction if there is no scientific evidence? Jurors are more likely to convict with an eye witness testimony when there is no hard evidence linking the alleged assailant to the crime. Many of us believe that there is not way our memory can be skewed or altered, that events like these people do not forget, but there is ways that we can.

    Our memories and minds are very fascinating, and are not as reliable as we think according to previous research. Many jurors can be incompetent in this area and they tend to believe the media aspect such as CSI: Miami and other similar television shows. Eye witness testimonies are just not enough, there are people’s lives at stake and convicting an innocent person for a crime he or she did not commit is wrong. There have been about 75% convictions that have been over turned thanks to the science of DNA, including Ronald Cotton’s case.

    The DNA that was well preserved from the case was compared to the DNA of Ronald Cotton and the real assailant Poole. There was a positive match between Poole and the DNA found in the crime scene. If there would have been DNA testing and the advances in research there is on eye witness testimony, Ronald Cotton would have not lost 11 years of his life. Though the post traumatic stress a rape victim experiences, pushes them to make sure they get they rapist, it is the investigators job to make sure they have enough evidence to convict the alleged rapist and not solely rely on the mind of the victim.

    DNA is the only evidence jurors and investigators should rely on, its science. Mistakes happen and will keep on happening but DNA is our safety net and as potential jurors we should understand that everything is not what it seems. These major flaws in this case cost an innocent man 11 years of his life and the never ending regret of the eye witness. The facts that there was no DNA presented in the case, that the victim was white and her rapist was a black male and lastly that the key evidence was the victim herself, all contributed to his conviction in some way or another.

    Having the scientific advances in these fields such as eliminating eye witness wrongful identification, unconscious transference, cross racial bias with the Manson Criteria or having a blind lineup administrator helps keep innocent people out of prison. Advance like these will keep on growing and help the legal section run smoother every single time. Thanks to the science of our generation, we understand the legal system and different factors that can contribute to identify the guilty and exonerate the innocent.


    Abshire, J. & Bornstein, B. H. (2003). Juror sensitivity to the cross-race effect. Law and Human Behavior, 27(5), 471-480. Costanzo, M. & Krauss, D. (2012). Forensic and legal psychology. Psychological ScienceApplied to Law. Douglass, A. B. Neuschatz, J. S. , Imrich, J. , & Wilkinson, M. (2009). Does post identification feedback affect evaluations of eyewitness testimony and identification procedures. Law and Human Behavior, 34, 282-294. Jackiw, L. B. , Arbuthnott, K. D. , Pfeifer, J. E. , Marcon, J. L. , & Meissner, C. A. (2008). Examining the cross-race effect in lineup identification using Caucasians and first nations samples.

    Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 40(1), 52-57. Kramer, T. H. , Buckhout, R. & Eugenio, P. (1990). Weapon focus, arousal and eyewitness memory. Law and Human Behavior, 14(2), 167-184. Palmer, M. A. , Brewer, N. , & Weber, N. (2010). Post identification feedback affects subsequent eyewitness identification performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology Applied, 16(4), 387-398. Quinlivan, D. S. , Neuschatz, J. S. , Douglass, A. B. , Wells, G. L. & Wetmore, S. A. (2011). The effect of post-identification feedback, delay and suspicions on accurateeyewitnesses. Law and Human Behavior, 36, 206-214.

    Ross, D. F. , Ceci, S. J. , Dunning, D. , & Togila, M. P. (1994). Unconscious transference and mistaken identity: When a witness misidentifies a familiar but innocent person. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(6), 918-930. Scheck, B. , Neufeld, P. , & Dwyer, J. (2000). Actual innocence. New York: Random House. Thompson-Cannino. J. , Cotton, R. & Toreno. E. (2009). Picking Cotton: Our memoir of injustice and redemption. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. Wells, G. L. & Olson, E. A. (2001). The other race effect in eyewitness identification. Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 7(1), 230-246.

    Theme of Rape In “Picking Cotton”. (2016, Dec 30). Retrieved from

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