In 1984, a man broke into to college student Jennifer Thompson’s apartment while she was sleeping and raped her in her bed, but she did her utmost through the assault to scrutinize every aspect of his appearance so she could give police as complete a description as possible. She helped create a composite sketch that swiftly led to an arrest, and her testimony sent Ronald Cotton to prison for both her rape and another woman’s for two life sentences.
Ten years later, DNA evidence proved that Cotton was not, in fact, Thompson’s attacker, and that the actual rapist was a similar-looking man Cotton had been blaming throughout the appeals process. While Cotton sat in prison, that man committed dozens of other violent crimes, including six rapes — leading Thompson to the horrifying realization that her mistaken identification not only sent an innocent man to jail, but also allowed a rapist to walk the streets free.
“If we’re going to talk about wrongful conviction, we also have to talk about wrongful liberty,” Thompson said. “…Everybody gets hurt. Everybody is failed — everybody except the perpetrator, who lives to be free.”
Since then, Thompson and Cotton have reconciled, and sought to use their experience to raise awareness about the risks to public safety of faulty eyewitness identifications. On Friday, as the final speaker at the 2018 Loyola Law Review Symposium, Thompson shared her harrowing story of fear, pain, vengeance, sorrow and redemption.
Click the video to hear Thompson’s account in her own words. (Note: Turn your computer’s volume up loud because Thompson was speaking without a microphone, and use headphones if you have them — that extra effort is certainly worth it.)