On Picking Cotton and Rebuilding Trust in Witnesses
Is the death penalty "obsolete in North Carolina"? It might be, says Jim Woodall, district attorney for Orange and Chatham counties, reacting to the news that inaccurate reports from the State Bureau of Investigation's crime lab may have been used by prosecutors to obtain guilty verdicts in capital cases.
According to WCHL (Chapel Hill) news reports, Woodall believes "the state should place a moratorium on executions."
The revival of the debate on the death penalty is just one of the many fallouts from The News & Observer's expose and the outside review of SBI procedures that it prompted.
Prosecutors and courts are reeling as they face an expensive and time-consuming process of review and retrial of cases where the tainted testimony from the SBI lab results helped convict defendants, possibly affected the sentence, or was a factor in a plea bargain agreement. Even more disquieting is their quiet realization that their use of misleading SBI evidence might have led to the execution of an innocent accused.
For the moment, North Carolina prosecutors face a more difficult problem. North Carolina citizens serving on juries are going to be more skeptical of the prosecution's expert witnesses. It is going to be much harder to prove guilt based on the conclusions of forensic experts on the state's payroll. That skepticism will, at least to a degree, carry over to all the state's witnesses in criminal cases.
It is a matter of trust. And the trust factor is broken, at least for a while.
How do you rebuild that trust? Some people, including powerful Sen. Marc Basnight, may favor making the crime lab independent of the SBI.
But prosecutors will be wary of this suggestion. While they certainly want the crime lab procedures and reports to be accurate, they also want witnesses who will help them by testifying with confidence and certainty. They want experts who will be helpful as well as professional. Too many "maybes" and "could-bes" and not enough "certainties" may diminish the persuasiveness of a witness in the eyes of a jury. Witnesses from an independent lab are not going to be nearly as coachable as those from an affiliated lab.
Coincidentally, this week new UNC-Chapel Hill students discussed a book that showed how eyewitness testimony delivered with confidence and certainty led to the conviction and imprisonment of an innocent accused.
The book is "Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption" by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton (with Erin Torneo).
Thompson-Cannino was the victim of a brutal rape. In a lineup she identified Cotton as the rapist. When she testified in court, she had no doubt and her confident testimony led to Cotton's conviction in 1985.
Cotton remained in prison for more than 10 years. In 1995, DNA evidence proved that another man, not Cotton, had raped Thompson-Cannino.
In "Picking Cotton," Thompson-Cannino tells how she came to her certainty about Cotton's guilt - and stuck to it until the DNA evidence forced her to admit she might have been wrong. In a parallel story, Cotton describes the hatred he felt for Thompson-Cannino as she falsely accused him.
"Picking Cotton" should remind us (if the SBI mess had not) that our justice system is not perfect, and that all of us must take responsibility for its failings.
Thankfully there is another, more hopeful, message in "Picking Cotton." Thompson-Cannino and Cotton, and their families, have become friends and colleagues, as well as co-authors of their powerful book.
Instead of allowing the brutal rape and the long-term incarceration to ruin their lives, they have developed a mutual trust and respect that could be a powerful example for the rest of us ... as we work to repair the damage the SBI crime lab has done and to rebuild the trust its actions destroyed.
D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Sundays at 5 p.m.This Sunday's (Aug. 29) guest is Jill McCorkle, author of "Going Away Shoes."
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