What we know about mistaken IDs in sexual assault cases

Like many Americans, I was riveted to the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and related developments. One thing that struck me particularly was Judge Kavanaugh’s contention that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford indeed had been sexually assaulted in 1982—just not by him.

In other words, he claimed to be the victim of a mistaken identification—a phenomenon I know something about.

Thirty-four years ago, when I was a 22-year-old college senior, I was raped by a man who broke into my apartment in the middle of the night, threatened me with a knife, and told me he would kill me if I screamed.

I made a concerted effort to etch every detail of the man’s face into my mind—determined, if I survived, to bring this monster to justice. The next morning, from a flawed police photo array, I was led to identify Ronald Cotton as my rapist. As a result, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison—only to be exonerated 11 years later by DNA testing.

I won’t go into detail about the case here because the story has been extensively reported—in a 1997 PBS documentary titled What Jennifer Saw, an op-ed piece I wrote in 2000 for the New York Times headlined “I Was Certain, but I Was Wrong,” and a 2009 best-selling book, “Picking Cotton,” that I wrote with Ronald.

Over the decades, struggling to understand how such an error could have occurred, I have become knowledgeable of cross-racial effects, weapon focus, relative judgment, and memory contamination—factors that in concert are a pervasive problem. (The National Registry of Exonerations has documented 216 sexual assault cases in which mistaken identifications by victims have culminated in false convictions since 1989.)

But I was stunned when I began receiving calls from reporters asking how my story related to Christine Blasey Ford’s. I even received a letter from an acquaintance asking, “How reliable are such identifications? I don’t doubt that [Ford] was attacked, but how can she be so sure it was Kavanaugh?”

The answer is that the factors involved in mistaken identifications by sexual assault victims like me do not apply when perpetrators are known to their victims.

As it happens, aside from my mistaken identification of Ronald Cotton, I have had other experiences that do relate to Dr. Ford’s story.

When I was in the seventh grade, a boy I knew dragged me into a supply closet and tried to insert a magic marker into my vagina. Years later, the father of a friend of mine groped me at a beach house. And when I was a college freshman, a football player stalked me, hid in my dorm room, and raped me.

Like Dr. Ford, I don’t recall some details of these attacks. I can’t be precise, for instance, about whether I was shoved into the supply closet on a Monday or a Tuesday, or what the father who groped me or the football player who raped me were wearing.

But, like Dr. Ford, I am absolutely certain who the perpetrators were.

Any suggestion that Dr. Ford identified the wrong man is ludicrous.

Those such as Maine Senator Susan Collins who contend that Kavanaugh could be the victim of a mistake know nothing about stranger verses acquaintance sexual assault.


Jennifer Thompson is the founder of Healing Justice Project and a member of the Injustice Watch Board of Directors.