Analysis Of The System And Estimator Variables In The Cotton Case

Topics: Eyewitness identification, Criminal law, Psychology Pages: 5 (923 words) Published: April 24, 2015

Analysis of the System and Estimator Variables in the Cotton Case FPSY-2001-1
Walden University

There are two variables associated with the misidentification of one by an eyewitness, estimator variables or “factors that relate to the circumstances under which witnessing takes place”, and system variables in which the variables “include overt or subtle suggestive techniques cops use to influence a witness to pick a particular suspect” ("Mistaken Identification in California Criminal Cases", n.d., p. xx). In the Ronald Cotton case estimator variables, such as, the witness being frightened or possibly fixated on the fact a knife was being wielded against her during the assault could have helped play a role in her misidentification of Cotton. A study in relation to the reliability of eyewitnesses conducted on 509 soldiers revealed that, when the soldiers were placed in high stress conditions (perhaps being held under gun or knife point, that 58% of them identified the wrong person (Costanzo, Krauss, 2011). Additionally, because the crime occurred at night, and the lights were off, darkness itself, may have also hindered the witness’s ability to make an accurate identification (Wells, Olson, 2003). In order to look at system variables involved in this case, we have to first look at some of what the trial records brought to light. Police asked the witness to help draw a composite sketch of her rapist. This poses a problem because composite sketches can be open to biases. For example, repeatedly discussing and thinking about an event may lead ‘false memories’ which are compelling making it very difficult for a witness to distinguish their real memories of events from the false ones. ("Depleted Cranium » Blog Archive » How Useful are Composite Sketches?” 2009). The witness was then shown an array of six photos in which she initially picked two photos one of which was a mug shot of Cotton's. She had examined those photos for approximately five minutes before declaring, "Yeah. This is the one," and added, "I think this is the guy." A detective then asked, “You 'think' that's the guy?" and she replied, "It's him." The lead investigator then followed with, "You're sure," to which the witness replied, “Positive” (Garret, 2011). Here lays one potential issue, the investigators did not ask her in an open-ended way how sure she actually was (a confidence statement), something that is recommend by psychologists to help obtain more accurate identifications (Garret, 2011) and in this case they instead just implied to the witness she absolutely needed to be certain, which resulted in her feeling more confident. In addition to this, the investigators provided the witness with further reinforcement by telling her "You did great, Ms. Thompson", when she asked them if she did alright (Garret, 2011). Later the district attorney asked for line-up to be performed at which time the witness was again simply asked to be certain, not how certain she actually was. Additionally, further verbal reinforcements were also given at this time, "We thought that might be the guy," and "It's the same person you picked from the photos" (Garret, 2011). The witness herself later recalled, “When I picked him out in the physical lineup and I walked out of the room, they looked at me and said, 'that's the same guy,' I mean, 'that’s the one you picked out in the photo.' For me that was a huge amount of relief" (Garret, 2011). This lineup was conducted by the investigators in this case and the investigators were fully aware of who the suspect was and who the fillers were. This in itself poses some issues. First is, the people administrating the lineup “could inadvertently communicate their knowledge about which lineup member is the suspect “(Wells, G. Olson, E., 2003, pg. 289). Another, (that clearly can be seen in the Cotton case) is, post-identification suggestions made to...

References: Costanzo, M., & Krauss, D. (2012). Forensic and legal psychology: Psychological science applied to law. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Depleted Cranium » Blog Archive » How Useful are Composite Sketches? (2009, February 4). Retrieved June 12, 2014, from
Garret, B. (2011, April 11). Getting It Wrong: Convicting the Innocent. Retrieved June 12, 2014, from
Mistaken Identification in California Criminal Cases. (n.d.). Retrieved June 12, 2014, from
The Innocence Project - Eyewitness Identification Reform. (n.d.). Retrieved June 12, 2014, from
Wells, G. & Olson, E. (2003). Eyewitness testimony. Annual Review of Psychology, 54(1), 277–295. Retrieved from the Walden Library databases.
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