I listened to a remarkable Diane Rehm Show the other day about a case of mistaken identity that landed an innocent man in prison. While we sometimes hear of this, what makes this case memorable is how the crime victim, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, was absolutely dead sure she had picked the right man who raped her. Through her ordeal, she focused on survival and burning her assailant’s image into her brain so that he could be caught and put away. Based on her witness, Ronald Cotton was sent to jail in 1984 with a life term plus 50 years. Jennifer felt she had saved the women of America from this man. Unfortunately, she was wrong.
Eleven years later, through a new technology called DNA testing, Ronald Cotton was found innocent, and another man – who looked very similar to him – was found guilty and confessed. Jennifer was devastated by what she had done. Her memory had deceived her. Plagued by nightmares and fear of retribution, she finally asked to meet. Ronald, with gracious mercy, forgave her and set them both on a path of healing and activism. Ronald and Jennifer have written a book together, Picking Cotton, to detail their story. It is a frightening learning experience about the fallibility of memory. Jennifer had made an honest mistake that could have destroyed a man’s life, and what about other crime cases where strangers are identified based on eye witness and then convicted with no DNA evidence?
What is it with memory? Jennifer KNEW this was the man, beyond doubt, and the jury believed her. Is our lesson to always doubt what we see? Can we trust our memories, will our memoirs ever be the truth? For most of us this is not a life-altering question, we are not faced with being asked probing questions that may confuse or lead us to make mistakes. For those of us who aren’t crime witnesses, it does indicate that we might want to discuss some of our memories of events with others who were also there at the time. Is our perception greatly different from that of the others? Feelings, emotions, stress – which should not be negated in a memoir – can cloud what really happened. Augustin Burroughs would have been smart to ask his own family to verify his version of events before publishing Running With Scissors! When we collaborate with others we might find more of the truth, and we might even find ourselves recalling even more detail to add to our stories. On the other hand, beware of one person leading us to memories that never were. Collaborate, sift, think, then write your truth.
“If you accept that the way we think, perceive, reason, and judge is not always perfect, then it’s easy to understand why cognitive processes and the factors influencing these processes are studied by psychologists in matters of law; not least because of the grave implications that this imperfection can have within the criminal justice system.” –from All About Forensic Psychology