Thomas McGowan, a Texas exoneree who was released in April 2008, recently had the opportunity to meet the rape victim who had misidentified him nearly a quarter-century before. Their meeting was conceived by the original investigator on the case, Mike Corley, now Assistant Police Chief of the Richardson Police Department. DNA testing proved McGowan’s innocence of a 1985 burglary and aggravated sexual assault and implicated another man, who was convicted of a separate rape in 1986 and is currently in prison.
“Everything was very emotional,” McGowan says of the meeting. “Everybody was just trying to get out how they feel. I thought to myself, here it is all over again—same detective, same woman, same scenario—why couldn’t it have been like this in the first place? But we still have an opportunity to make things right.”
The victim, who has asked to remain anonymous, agrees, “My heart goes out to Thomas. I can’t give him back those 23 years, I wish I could. The best we can do is try to go forward from here to make sure that no one else has to be wrongfully convicted and no other victim has to go through this. It was good for me to meet Thomas, but when I went home I cried all night long. I cried for me, I cried for Thomas, I cried for Mike Corley and most of all I cried for the victim that was raped the next year because I picked the wrong person.”
The victim’s identification was the central evidence used to convict McGowan, and it was based on lineup procedures that have since come under scrutiny. Assistant Police Chief Corley has supported the Richardson Police Department in adopting new lineup procedures called “sequential-double blind” that are recommended by the Innocence Project and shown to reduce the rate of misidentification. In response to a growing number of Dallas County DNA exonerations in cases involving eyewitness misidentification (14 in total), the Dallas Police Department has implemented these procedures as well.
Corley thought to arrange a meeting between McGowan and the victim after hearing the story of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. Cotton served over 10 years after Thompson-Cannino’s misidentification of him contributed to his wrongful conviction for rape. Now the two have co-authored a bestselling book, Picking Cotton, and travel the country advocating for eyewitness identification reform. Corley hoped that McGowan and the victim in his case might also be willing to speak about their experiences with eyewitness misidentification to help law enforcement officers understand that “it can happen to anybody.”
“I’ve heard ‘well, that can’t happen to me.’ If you have that attitude then it probably will,” Corley says. “This didn’t happen to bungling idiots, it happened to good people.” In 1985, the Richardson Police Department had no written policies for conducting lineup procedures. Many police departments still do not have written procedures for conducting identifications and no formal training on eyewitness identification procedures.
Corley says the meeting with McGowan gave him a sense of relief as well. “It really helped me to meet Thomas. I can look anybody in the eye and say I did the best job I could with what I had at the time. But also, anybody that did over 20 years in prison for something they didn’t do, it makes me feel bad as a law enforcement officer and as a person. Meeting him made me feel better.”
McGowan, the victim and Corley are scheduled to speak at the 116th Annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in October on a panel about eyewitness misidentification. Fifteen thousand law enforcement professionals are expected to attend. “I’m committed to working with police departments to make sure this never happens again,” the victim says. “It’s been painful, but the important thing is that we learn from this lesson and that people across the country learn from this lesson.”
– the story of Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino.
The Caues of Wrongful Conviction: