Eyewitness: Anatomy Of A Story

60 Minutes Producer Shari Finkelstein Delves Deeper Into Her Story On Eyewitness Memory

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Written by 60 Minutes producer Shari Finkelstein.

I felt extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to have two segments on Sunday night's 60 Minutes to tell the remarkable story of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton.

The twists and turns of the awful crime and subsequent investigation that brought them together - and then of course their meeting and reconciliation years later - were so powerful that Lesley Stahl and I had worried that without an additional segment, we would never be able to dig deeper and show how Jennifer's mistake is actually a very common one that can be explained and illustrated by a series of scientific studies. And yet even with the privilege of that extra time, there were still many fascinating things we learned through our research and reporting that we found we just couldn't fit into our story.

For starters, there is the issue of race. Jennifer is white; her rapist was black. Studies have shown again and again that people of all different races do much less well identifying strangers of another race. It happens when white people try to identify African-Americans and vice versa. It is also the case between whites and Asians, Asians and African-Americans, and all different permutations.

Gary Wells, the psychology professor from Iowa State who showed Lesley side by side photos of Ronald Cotton and Bobby Poole (the man who actually raped Jennifer), told us that when white people see the two faces, they tend to think they look amazingly similar, while African-Americans look at the same two pictures and say they look nothing alike.

And then there is the issue of stress. Lesley and I did a story a few years ago about the effect of stress and heightened emotion on memory. It was in the context of trying to use a beta blocking drug called propranolol to help prevent trauma victims from developing post-traumatic stress disorder, and the basic memory mechanisms we learned about both in rats and humans involved how adrenaline strengthened the consolidation of memories.

What we learned in that story is what apparently many jurors bring into the courtroom - a belief that when someone experiences a stressful event, the rush of adrenaline sears that memory into the brain in a way that makes it impossible to forget. The implication is, of course, that a victim should then be able to remember his or her assailant's face perfectly and forever - should in some ways never be able to forget it.

But what we learned in researching this story is basically the opposite, which at first was tremendously disconcerting to me, since it seemed to be showing that our previous reporting was flawed. But it wasn't, and the distinction was fascinating.

What really interesting research by a Yale University psychologist named Charles Morgan has shown is that when U.S. soldiers are subjected to extremely high-stress mock interrogations at military survival school, they do shockingly poorly at identifying their interrogator out of a lineup - even though they were interrogated by the person for more than half an hour in a well-lit room. Fewer than half Morgan's subjects chose the correct person, and several got the race, and even the gender, wrong. How could that possibly be? Gary Wells has an explanation: when you are subjected to intense stress, the fact that the event happened is seared into your memory for good, and you will certainly not forget that day the way you will what you did most ordinary days, but the details of what happened, and certainly the details of a stranger's face, will be blurry rather than sharp, because they are not what you are focusing on in that moment.

Another study by Gary Wells surprised us as well. When Ronald Cotton first came to the police station to try to clear his name, he gave Detective Mike Gauldin an elaborate alibi - lots of details about where he had been and who he had been with on the night of the rape, that turned out to be wrong. It seemed at the time to be damning evidence that he was lying, and probably guilty. But Wells has done a study where he asks college students to come in and report where they were and what they were doing at particular times on days a few weeks in the past. Then Wells sent them off to research their own alibis, and it turned out that 25 percent of his subjects came back and had to change their alibis. He said what really surprised him was that people were so confident of where they had been in the first place. He told us that they could have said, "I don't remember," but they didn't. They thought they knew.

And back to the specific details of the story of Jennifer and Ron - perhaps the most stunning thing to realize in reporting this story is how eerily unlikely it was that Ronald Cotton would end up where he is today - a free man. Of course he was always an innocent man, and yet the chances of him being able to prove that were infinitesimal. It was only through an incredible series of coincidences that any DNA was left from the initial rape kits of Jennifer Thompson and the second woman Bobby Poole raped that night. Had the rape kits been introduced into evidence in either of Ronald Cotton's two trials, they would have been destroyed by the court (their routine procedure).

Since they were not used in court, they stayed with the Burlington Police Department, in their evidence room. But since Cotton's case had completed the appeals process, the police were under no obligation to keep the evidence. In fact, it had come up for destruction many times, but Mike Gauldin, the detective on the case who later became Burlington's police chief, had always signed off to have it kept. He says he's not sure why he saved it, although he knows it wasn't because he had any doubt of Ronald Cotton's guilt - he was certain Cotton was guilty. But had he not signed to keep the evidence, again, there would have been nothing left to test.

Then, even with the rape kits saved, the only viable DNA that was found in either of them was literally a fragment of a single sperm head - an almost unimaginably small fragment that did not match Ronald Cotton, but did match Bobby Poole, the man Cotton had been saying was the rapist all along.

And another bizarre "what if" - Ronald Cotton says he was so angry at Bobby Poole for not only allowing him to serve his time, but also bragging about it, that he was tempted to murder Poole in prison. As we

, Cotton even made a weapon in prison and had told Poole he was going to kill him, but Cotton's father talked him out of it during a prison visit, and he threw the weapon down a drain pipe so no one else could use it and get hurt. Had Cotton gone ahead with his plan and murdered Bobby Poole, there probably would no longer have been DNA from Poole to test, and of course, even if there had been, despite being innocent of the Jennifer's rape, he would then be guilty of pre-meditated murder.

I can't remember working on a story with this many different facets and twist and turns and compelling sidebars. I wish we could have found a way to include all of them - perhaps someday in the three-hour version! Or, for those who are interested, in the book Jennifer and Ron have just written with writer Erin Torneo, called "Picking Cotton."

Watch parts one and two of Finkelstein's segment:

Written by Shari Finkelstein