Despite its sunny and beautiful locale in Florida, Fort Walton Beach is home to one of the fastest rising crime rates in the nation, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Over the past few years, crimes rates have soared, and violent crimes have risen by a whopping 40%. One of the more commonly occurring violent offenses is sexual battery. Though complaints of rape and sexual assault are common in Fort Walton Beach, research and real-life examples have shown that rape complainants are notoriously unreliable when both describing and identifying their rapists.
In one of the most famous cases of this unfortunate trend, Jennifer Thompson lived alone in a North Carolina apartment in 1984 while she attended school at Elon College. While she was asleep in bed one night, a man climbed through her window with a knife in his hand. He held the knife to her throat and threatened to kill her, then raped her. The ordeal lasted an hour. Though Thompson wanted to close her eyes, she instead stared at the perpetrator square in the face during the assault. She memorized his features so that she could report him to the police. She was then able to run to a neighbor’s to seek help, and the man escaped.
Thompson reported the rape to the police, and using her memory of the man’s face, she described how he looked to a sketch artist. Based on the drawing, the local police set out to find the suspect. They gathered together several photos of black men from the area that had criminal histories. One of these men was Ronald Cotton. Cotton voluntarily cooperated with officers during questioning because he was innocent. However, this backfired when Thompson identified him as a rapist. Based on her memory, Thompson was firmly convinced Cotton was the rapist. Cotton was arrested and charged with two counts of rape, then later convicted.
While incarcerated, Cotton met a man named Bobby Poole. Poole bragged that he had raped Thompson. Cotton appealed and was granted a second trial, though he was not permitted to allow testimony that Poole was the real rapist. During this second trial, Thompson remained firm in her belief that Cotton had raped her. Cotton was again convicted.
It wasn’t until 1995 that a criminal defense attorney came along who believed in Cotton’s innocence. The lawyer filed a motion for DNA testing. In 1984 when the crime occurred, DNA testing did not exist. However, in 1995, the police were able to test the items in evidence. It was found that Cotton did not match any of the DNA evidence, but Poole did.
Cotton’s conviction for rape was then overturned, and he was released. Thompson learned of the decision and was overcome with feelings of confusion and guilt but refused to speak with Cotton. A special documentary on the case was filmed that both Thompson and Cotton participated in, though she declined to meet him. It wasn’t until later when she watched the film and saw how hurt he looked over the experience that she was convinced to contact him and apologize. Over the years, the two have become close friends and wrote a book in 2009 entitled Picking Cotton, which covers the case, as well as the inherent unreliability of eyewitnesses. Cotton and Thompson hope that the case can shed light on issues with suspect identification.
Fight Misidentification with Stephen G. Cobb
If you were identified in Fort Walton Beach as being involved in sexual battery, consult with a skilled Fort Walton Beach criminal defense attorney immediately. Stephen G. Cobb assists Okaloosa County residents with conducting thorough investigations and vigorously defending false allegations of rape. Call us today at (850) 669-5882 to learn more about how we can help you.
Cobb Criminal Defense Law Firm
1992 Lewis Turner Blvd, Suite 101-B
Fort Walton Beach, FL 32547