The Common Good

False Witness Redeemed: Forgiveness After 11 Years of Wrongful Conviction

090715-ronald-cottonA white woman is raped by a black man in North Carolina. During the assault, she studies his face, determined to bring him to justice. She later identifies a suspect both in photos and in-person line-ups. Only she's wrong. An innocent man spends 11 years in jail before he's exonerated by DNA evidence. His response? Forgiveness. Now they are close friends who speak out for reform within our law enforcement and criminal justice system. It's not a made-for-TV movie. It's a two-part segment on 60 Minutes that still blows my mind as I think about it.

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And no, it's not as predictable as white-woman-thinks-all-black-men-look-alike. That definitely happens, and folks have been falsely accused as a result. But in this case, seen side-by-side, the real culprit and the falsely accused bear a striking resemblance--so much so that when they were both in jail, other inmates and staff confused the two. No, this is a story about the frailty of human memory and its malleability--whether by conscious coercion or flawed investigative technique.

And then there's the part where Ronald Cotton forgives Jennifer Thompson after spending 11 years in jail on her testimony.

Jesus.

(And I'm not using that name in vain.)

God's Politics contributor Alan Bean from Friends of Justice has some insightful commentary on the witness testimony side of things. But instead of reposting his entry, I felt compelled to share a bit of my story, as this report brought back memories of the night I was mugged and stuffed in the trunk of my car almost two years ago.

Something I didn't write about on this blog at the time was how quickly the police apprehended the suspects in my case. In fact, within hours of my mugging, I was taken for a "show-up" at the site of their arrest on the other side of D.C. I had described two African American males, one wearing a camouflage jacket and holding what looked to be a .22 caliber revolver, and driving a white pickup truck. But when the suspects were presented to me just hours later, I could not in good conscience say "Yes, those are definitely the guys." Even though one was wearing a camouflage jacket. Even though they had wrecked a white pickup truck while fleeing police. Their faces were simply not clear enough in my memory. I hadn't had much time to study them while lying on the ground with a gun to my neck. And there just might have been two other guys driving a white truck in D.C. that night.

Another factor was that a couple who were good friends of mine had recently been falsely arrested in a wrong-place-wrong-time scenario, and I wasn't about to put anyone through that hell unless I was 99.999 percent sure they were the guys. And at 2:00 a.m. on the other side of the city, I did not have that confidence.

I think about that incident often, not because it was particularly traumatic to me--I wasn't hurt physically, and they only got about $20 off of me. But often it's come mind when I've driven by the site of the show-up almost every week this year on the way to a small group Bible study that coincidentally meets about a block away.

Mostly I think about how, knowing what I know now, those probably were the guys. I later learned that their truck had been spotted by police almost immediately and chased from my street--since they were dumb enough to leave my cell phone, I was able to call 911 right after they left. I learned that when arrested, the man in the camouflage jacket was also wearing a bullet-proof vest. He was also carrying .22 caliber ammunition. That's enough circumstantial evidence to convince me. We'll see what the jury thinks, but wouldn't it have been simpler if I had IDed them on the scene?

But even knowing what I know now--and especially after seeing the 60 Minutes segment--I feel reassured that I did the right thing that night. I wasn't sure it was them. All I can do, then and when I testify at the trial, is to tell the facts as I know them, and put my trust in God's justice should the U.S. criminal justice system falter, as it so often does. The trial has been postponed multiple times but is scheduled for this September--almost exactly two years later.

I've already testified at a parole revocation hearing for the main suspect a few months after his arrest in my case. I told him that I was not angry with him, that I forgave him, and that it was because of Jesus that I felt that way, and that he should check out Jesus if he gets the chance while he's locked up. His public defender reminded me that I was presuming his guilt--that he was still only a suspect in my case. Yes, of course. So I rephrased: "If you mugged me, I forgive you."

I've always been an extremely awkward evangelist, if any. I'm no Ronald Cotton, but I do my best.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners and a photographer whose work can be seen at www.ryanrodrickbeiler.com.

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