Eyewitness: How Accurate Is Visual Memory?

Lesley Stahl Reports On Flaws In Eyewitness Testimony That Lead To Wrong Convictions

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This story was first published on March 8, 2009. It was updated on July 11, 2009.

It's a cliché of courtroom dramas - that moment when the witness is asked "Do you see the person who committed the crime here in this courtroom before you?" It happens in real courtrooms all the time, and to jurors, that point of the finger by a confident eyewitness is about as damning as evidence can get.

But there is one type of evidence that's even more persuasive: DNA. There have been 235 people exonerated by DNA in this country, and as 60 Minutes and correspondent Lesley Stahl first reported in March, now a stunning pattern has emerged: more than three quarters of them were sent to prison at least in part because an eyewitness pointed a finger - an eyewitness we now know was wrong.

It was hot and humid in Burlington, N.C. on the night of July 28, 1984. Jennifer Thompson, then a 22-year-old college student, had gone to bed early in her off-campus apartment. As she slept, a man shattered the light bulb near her back door, cut her phone line, and broke in.

"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. I screamed and I felt a blade go to my throat," Thompson told Stahl.

Thompson said the man, armed with a knife, told her to shut up or that he would kill her.

Her first thought was to offer him anything she had to go away. "'You can have my credit card. You can have my wallet. You can have anything in the apartment. You can have my car.' And he looked at me and said, 'I don't want your money.' And I knew what was gettin' ready to happen."

She vowed to stay alert and study him so that if she lived, she could help put him away forever. "'What is his voice? Does he have an accent? Does he have a scar? Is there a tattoo?'" Thompson explained.

"He's raping you, and you're studying his face," Stahl remarked.

"It was just trying to pay attention to a detail, that if I survived, and that was my plan, I'd be able to help the police catch him," she replied.

After about half an hour, Thompson tricked the rapist into letting her get up and fix him a drink; she ran out the back door. He fled and raped a second woman half a mile away. Detective Mike Gauldin met Thompson at the hospital.

"The first comment I remember her making was that, 'I'm gonna get this guy that did this to me.' She said, 'I took the time to look at him. I will be able to identify him if I'm given an opportunity,'" Gauldin remembered.

Detective Gauldin worked with Thompson to make a composite sketch, poring over eyes, noses, ears and lips in an effort trying to recreate the face she had seen that night. The sketch went out, and tips started coming in.

One of those tips was about a young man named Ronald Cotton. He worked at a restaurant near the scene of both rapes, and had a record: a guilty plea to breaking and entering, and as a teenager, to sexual assault.

Three days after the rape, Gauldin called Thompson in to do a photo lineup. He lay six pictures down on the table, said the perpetrator may or may not be one of them, and told her to take her time.

Gauldin said Thompson did not immediately identify a photo, taking her time to study each picture.

"I can remember almost feeling like I was at an SAT test. You know, where you start narrowing down your choices. You can discount A and B," Thompson said.

"Oh, like multiple choice?" Stahl asked.

"Exactly," Thompson replied.