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Capturing the emotional journey of Healing Justice

Capturing transformation in Healing Justice
Capturing the emotional journey of Healing Justice 06:25

This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Lesley Stahl and a 60 Minutes team reported on Healing Justice, a nonprofit organization that brings together survivors, of crimes like sexual assault and rape, wrongfully convicted people, and family members— all from different cases— for a three-day retreat to help heal the deep wounds caused when the justice system gets it wrong.

The retreat involved writing exercises, group sessions and art therapy activities that are designed to help participants speak openly about their pain and loss, understand their own feelings, and better understand each other.

"They come in with impacted emotions: bitterness, guilt, sadness," Stahl told 60 Minutes Overtime. "It's hard to know whether one weekend can change you that much. But the beginning of a change certainly happens. We were there and watched it. We saw it." 

With their permission and cooperation, the participants and Healing Justice allowed 60 Minutes cameras to capture the emotional journeys of participants over the course of three days. 

Stahl and producer Shari Finkelstein spoke to 60 Minutes Overtime about their earlier reporting on the program's founder and the unique approach they took to produce their story.


Healing Justice's founder, Jennifer Thompson, is herself a rape survivor and was involved in a wrongful conviction case. 

In 2009, Stahl and Finkelstein reported on Thompson's experience and the flaws of eyewitness identification procedures in the criminal justice system for a story called "Eyewitness."

Eyewitness: How accurate is visual memory? | 60 Minutes Archive 26:00

On July 28, 1984, when Thompson was just a 22-year-old college student, she had gone to bed early and fallen asleep. While she slept, a man shattered the light bulb near her back door, cut the phone line and then broke into the apartment. 

"I remember kind of waking up and turning my head to the side and saying, "Who's there? Who is it?" And I saw the top of someone's head kind of sliding beside my mattress. And I screamed and I felt a blade go to my throat," Thompson told Stahl.

During the assault, Thompson closely studied the features of the attacker, taking note of any details that could help police identify him. 

Three days later, Thompson was asked to view a photo lineup by police. She picked up one of the photographs, of a man named Ronald Cotton, and identified him as her rapist. The police later presented her with a physical lineup, and she identified Cotton again.

"What was said to me afterwards was, 'That's the same person you picked out in the photo lineup'… I thought, 'Bingo. I did it right. I did it right,'" she told Stahl.

Thompson said she was "absolutely certain" that Cotton had raped her. She testified against him at trial. Cotton was sentenced to life in prison, plus 50 years. 

But after serving 11 years in prison, he was exonerated after a DNA test proved he was innocent. A man named Bobby Poole was identified by DNA as the actual rapist, who had attacked Jennifer that night and allowed Cotton to spend 11 years behind bars for his crime. 

Thompson was devastated when she realized Cotton had served time for a crime he did not commit. But she still saw Cotton's face when she dreamed about that horrific night.

She asked Cotton if he would meet her. She apologized to him, and Cotton forgave her. 

"The minute he forgave me, it's like my heart physically started to heal," Thompson told Stahl.

60 Minutes producer Shari Finkelstein said studies have repeatedly shown that, when the actual perpetrator is not included in the photo or physical lineup, eyewitnesses will often pick the person who looks most like the assailant. Bobby Poole was not in either of the lineups police showed Thompson. 

That's exactly what Stahl did in 2009 when she was shown a simulated crime scene and then a lineup that did not include the perpetrator. Stahl picked a man who looked to her like the perpetrator. She was convinced he had committed the crime.

"She did what many crime survivors do, which is picked the person who matched her memory as well as it could. But it wasn't the same guy. And that's exactly what happened in Jennifer's case," she told 60 Minutes Overtime. 

And once that initial misidentification is made, Finkelstein explained, it can become compounded: the victim can become even more convinced that the wrongly accused is the actual perpetrator. 

"They've seen the photograph. Then they see the person in a physical lineup. Then, they see the person in the courtroom…Again, and again, and again, that person's face becomes the face in their mind," she explained.

Filming "Healing Justice"

Finkelstein stayed in touch with Thompson over the years and became aware of the Healing Justice program as it started. When she heard about the retreats, Finkelstein began to imagine how to produce a 60 Minutes story. But a lot of considerations would need to be made.

"It took a long time to kind of work that all out…for them to be comfortable with the idea of having cameras in one of these retreats," Finkelstein said. 

"What they're dealing with is so emotional and personal, and all of these people have suffered tremendous trauma. And eventually, we figured out a way to make it work," Finkelstein said.

With their permission, Stahl conducted on-camera interviews with all the participants, nine in total, both before and after the retreat.

"Shari didn't know which of the pairs, the victim and the wrongfully accused, were going to have a change happen in the retreat," Stahl said.

For that reason, Finkelstein wanted to interview each of them, and then film every minute of the group sessions and activities that occurred over the weekend. 

60 Minutes photographers Don Lee and Tom Fahey arranged four cameras around the circle of participants in the group sessions, with one camera on tracks so that it could move quietly and unobtrusively, and film members of the group on one side of the circle as they spoke. Another camera was positioned to capture participants on the other side of the circle. Two fixed cameras filmed the entire group and Jennifer.

60 Minutes editor Dan Glucksman was able to make reels of the sessions in a four-squared grid. As he, Stahl, Finkelstein, and associate producer Collette Richards worked on the story, they could watch reactions from other members of the group as they happened.

"We could see, 'OK, when Loretta is having this particularly emotional moment, someone else is shaking their head in sympathy,'" Finkelstein explained. 

Healing Justice
60 Minutes editor Dan Glucksman put hours of reels together in a four-camera grid, so Lesley Stahl and producers could see reactions as they happened. 60 Minutes

One participant in the group, Loretta Zilinger White, who was raped when she was 15 and involved in a wrongful conviction case where the real perpetrator was never caught, had an emotional and tearful first interview with Stahl before the retreat. 

"She can't get the face of the wrongfully accused out of her mind and her eyes. She knows that he was exonerated by DNA evidence…but she cannot get his face out of her brain, that he did this," Stahl said. 

Another participant, Raymond Towler, was wrongfully convicted for the rape and assault of two children. After 29 years in prison, a DNA test proved his innocence. But after not being believed for so long, he could not shake the fear that people might continue to think he was guilty.

Late one night, while transferring footage from the day, 60 Minutes photographer Tom Fahey called Finkelstein, who was back in her hotel room. He told her that Zilinger White and Towler were having an intense conversation. He asked her if he should try to film it. Finkelstein told him to see if they were comfortable, and, if they were, to start rolling. 

"[Tom] was able to capture one of the moments that was really at the heart of the experience that they had," Finkelstein said.

At the end of the retreat, all nine participants sat for a final interview. 

Stahl told 60 Minutes Overtime that Zilinger White had gone through an emotional transformation and appeared to be "another person" in the final interview.

"The pain that she had been exhibiting seemed to have been lifted… I was able to see, and feel, and experience with her a person who went from misery to joy," Stahl said.

Finkelstein said Thompson would say that there is no "magic fix" that can happen in a three-day retreat and noted that Thompson herself told Stahl that she will "always be healing." 

"I think she would say that about everyone. But this gives them a lot," Finkelstein said.

The video above was produced by Will Croxton. It was edited by Sarah Shafer. 

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