How accurate is your memory?
Sometimes we say: "I have an infallible memory" or "I have a photographic memory. " Nothing further from reality.
Suppose you are a woman who was attacked by a knife-wielding rapist -would you remember his face? You might be surprised at just how faulty our memories can be, as the case of the rape victim Jennifer Thompson illustrates. While being brutally raped, Thompson steeled herself to study the rapist -his facial features, scars, tattoos, voice and mannerisms- vowing to herself that she would remember the man well enough to send him to prison.
Hours after the ordeal, Thompson viewed police photos of potential suspects, searching for those of her rapist, his pencil-thin mustache, eyebrows, nose, and other features. she then selected a composite photo that looked like the rapist. A week later, she view six suspects holding cards numbered 1 to 6. Thompson looked at suspect number 5 and announced with total confidence, "That's the man who raped me."
The man was Ronald Cotton, who had already served a year and a half in prison for attempted sexual assault. In court, Thompson was unshakably confident, sure that this man had raped her. Cotton was nervous and frightened. His alibis didn't check out, and a piece missing from one of his shoes resembled a piece found at the crime scene. But it was the confident, unwavering testimony of the only eyewitness, Jennifer Thompson, that sealed his fate. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison, just as she had hope.
"God knows I'm innocent," said Cotton, and he vowed to prove it somehow. Remarkably, after Cotton had been in prison for more than a year, a new inmate, Bobby Poole, who had been convicted of a series of brutal rapes, joined him at his work assignment in the kitchen. When Cotton told Poole that he had been convicted of raping Jennifer Thompson, Poole laughed and bragged that Cotton was doing some of his time.
Finally, after Cotton had served 11 years, law professor Richard Rosen heard his history and agreed to help him. Rosen knew that DNA tests could be performed that were far more sophisticated than those that had been available 11 years earlier. It was Cotton's DNA sample that cleared him of the crime. Bobby Poole's DNA samples, however, proved that he had raped Jennifer Thompson.
A nightmare now plagued Thompson: She had sent an innocent man to prison. But she met with Ronald Cotton and, in tears, expressed her sorrow for his ordeal. Cotoon responded softly, "I'm not mad at you. i just want you to have a good life." Thompson tearfully thanked him for his forgiveness.
Ronald Cotton is now married with a beautiful daughter, Raven. With Jennifer Thompson help he got a six-figure settlement from the state government.
Does this case reflect rare and unusual aspects of human memory, or are such memory errors common?
Read in: The World of Psychology (Fifth edition) p. 195-196
Do you like this post? Comment, share.