Monday, February 4, 2008

Justice opens blind eyes

Kaffie Sledge Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

One of my grandfather's favorite quips was, "Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?"

Seems Innocence Project is using DNA results to answer that very question in cases involving rape convictions.

The trauma associated with rape and sexual assault is mind altering. The case of Jennifer Thompson of Burlington, N.C., is a prime example of that.

In July 1984, an unknown assailant threatened Thompson with a knife and raped her.

"An aspiring college student at the time of the crime, she made it her purpose to study the assailant's face so that he would be brought to justice. She identified the wrong man," said innocenceproject.org.

Thompson identified Ronald Cotton as the man who raped her.

Almost 11 years later, however, DNA exonerated Cotton and proved the guilt of a man named Bobby Poole. Filled with remorse, Thompson met Cotton and asked for his forgiveness. He said he forgave her. The two became friends and began accepting joint speaking engagements.

Still, knowing what she knows and working as she does with Cotton, Thompson has said when she thinks about the rape it's the exonerated man's face she still sees. Despite conclusive scientific evidence that another man was the actual rapist, she can't get the wrongfully convicted man's face out of her memory.

"Today Thompson speaks out about her experiences and the dangers of relying solely upon single eyewitness testimony to convict a suspect," said innocenceproject.org.

Eyewitness testimony is involved in more than 80 percent of wrongful convictions, said Lisa George, Georgia Innocence Project communications director.

GIP discovered DNA evidence that exonerated John White of Manchester. On Dec. 10, 2007, White was released from Macon State Prison. The DNA test results that exonerated White, fingered James Edward Parham, who ironically was in the same 1979 lineup in which White was identified by a 74-year-old woman as the man who raped her Aug. 11, 1979.

One of the problems with eyewitness identification is there is nothing in writing about how eyewitness testimony is to be collected, George said.

"In John's case, it was dark and the woman wore glasses, which she would not have been wearing at three or four in the morning. The jury was looking at her -- she was so badly injured that a rape kit could not be collected. And the beating left her partially paralyzed. The jury believed this lady when she said John did it," George said of the White case.

George said GIP submitted open records requests to the 493 law enforcement agencies in Georgia, this includes campus police departments. Of the 350 that responded, "More than 80 percent reported having no written protocol for the collection of eyewitness testimony."

While those exonerated, such as White, said they see DNA testing as a godsend, the flipside can be ugly and unrelenting, said George, who recalls one woman's outrage: "I don't care what your damn DNA says, I know he's the one who raped me."

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