Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Justice, Illusion and The Tricked Brain

How does the brain create its sense of reality? Or, as the character Morpheus, from the movie, The MATRIX, asks,

"What is real? How do you define real? If you are talking about your senses, what you feel, taste, smell, or see, and then all you're talking about are electrical signals interpreted by your brain."

We begin to evolve our sense of reality by taking "snapshots" of our surroundings and the people we pass by, or meet. However, once that "snapshot" is taken, emotion, preconceived notions, and our other senses kick in to interpret, and ultimately "photoshop" that "snapshot", until it no longer accurately represents the physical reality.

Countless numbers of techniques have been devised to “trick” the brain, to increase the quality of our lives. It is the job of the artist, interior decorator, hair stylist, etc. to deliberately create illusion. However, like anything else, that which can be used to improve can also be used to worsen.

There is no place for illusion in our justice system, yet techniques devised to "trick" the brain are used all the time. The process of taking eyewitness accounting of what they saw is one example. Investigators, attorneys, etc., invested in the outcome of a case, can use numerous techniques that "trick" the brain of the eyewitness into believing an alternative reality.

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, collaboratively authored by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton tells the saga of one woman's brutal rape that she suffered as a 22-year-old college student, and her eyewitness testimony that sent Ronald Cotton to prison not once, but twice, for crimes he did not commit, the final result: two life sentences, plus. Eleven years later, DNA evidence cleared him of the crime.

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, the victim, had the presence of mind to deliberately remember everything she could about her attacker as she was brutally raped. She made it a point to remember his height, the shape of his eyes, his cheekbones, his voice, etc. So, how is it possible to finger the wrong guy after staring directly into your perpetrator's face? The intensity of the horror alone, should be enough to clearly and cleanly burn that person's face into your memory as if branded in with a hot iron.

After working with the composite sketch, choosing the nose, eyes, hair, and the features (very limited choice) that best represented that of her assailant, piecemeal, Cannino, was presented with a photograph of Cotton from several years prior. Why several years prior? Because his hair was much shorter then, hence, much closer to the way Cannino originally described her assailant. Cannino's real attacker, Bobby Poole was not even present in the line-up. So, in a state of sheer terror, she directly faced all the men, in the line-up - no two-way mirror like in the movies - and she chose the person she was convinced attacked her.

So, Ronald Cotton, an innocent man, was tried for the brutal rape of not just one woman, but two. All the "evidence" - fingerprints, blood, inner cushion of his shoe - the prosecution claimed to have in their possession, never saw the light of day, because it did not exist.

After he was convicted, and subsequently sent to prison, he met up with Bobby Poole, who was serving time for other offenses in the same jail as Cotton. After recognizing him from the composite sketch, Cotton confronted Poole and asked him if he raped the two girls he was accused of raping. Poole denied everything. Fortunately, later, another inmate told Cotton that Poole confessed both crimes to him. Cotton asked for a new trial, and received it, but was convicted again, this time receiving two life sentences.

Then, eleven years later, Ronald Cotton was cleared of all charges based on DNA test results. However, Ronald Cotton is one of very few men who get the chance to prove their innocence. Most convicted prisoners claiming innocence never get any attention, and even if they are heard, they usually lack the money and support to do anything about it. Ronald Cotton is an unusual man, almost "saintly". It could be that this "saintly" manner attracted the support he needed, and he did have a very supportive family who fully believed in his innocence.

The Innocence Project estimates at least 10% (a very conservative estimate) of all convicts are innocent, and approximately three-quarters of that percentage, were wrongly convicted because of mistaken eyewitness testimony.

"Flawed" human perception should be enough to abolish capital punishment. manipulative techniques The application of capital punishment is "deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation and where the crime was committed."

The last thirty years has ushered in a particularly harsh era of punishment that does not consider the limits and fragility of human perception. This highly punitive penal code that American society has adopted, does not consider the strong emotional and psychological forces intrinsic to any system of justice, that only serve to further distort and skew the reality, so important to the lives of the many individuals whose very survival depends on its accuracy.

After all that Ronald Cotton went through, he received $500 for every year he was wrongly imprisoned. I guess he should just be thankful his punishment was not irreversible.

Take the eyewitness test.

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