New York — In the midst of being raped, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino told herself to pay attention to details that would allow her to identify her attacker.
She gave police in North Carolina a description that led to a sketch of the suspect. Then she identified a man from photographs, picked him out of a lineup and told jurors she was certain he was the rapist.
That man, Ronald Cotton, received a life sentence and spent more than 10 years in prison before DNA testing cleared him of the crime.
Now the victim and the innocent man she helped convict are writing a book together.
Thompson-Cannino, who is white, had mistakenly picked out one black man; another was guilty of the crime.
"Between the composite sketch and the photo identification, I had messed it up," she said, recalling the 1984 rape and its aftermath. "By the time I got to the physical lineup, Ron Cotton had become my attacker and that was that."
And as she came to learn, she was not the only one to make a mistake so devastating that it deprived someone else of his freedom.
Since 1991, 218 people have been exonerated through DNA testing, and in more than three-quarters of the cases, mistaken eyewitness identifications were crucial in the wrongful convictions, according to The Innocence Project, a legal group that has sought genetic testing and led the charge to free innocent inmates.
Of those, nearly half, roughly seven dozen, involved a person of one race wrongly identifying someone of a different color.
Even people with training in law enforcement confront the difficulty of accurate identifications.
The American Bar Association, meeting in New York, is considering whether to recommend that judges use their discretion to make juries aware of the problems that can plague cross-racial identifications.
California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Utah already employ such instructions in some cases.
"The majority race is not as good at identifying minorities as it is its own race. This is hard-wired in some way that we don't completely understand. But the phenomenon should be presented to the jury," said Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project.
Prosecutors, however, do not want judges to raise the issue with juries.
"This is not an appropriate area for judges to go into," said Josh Marquis, district attorney in Astoria, Ore., and a member of the executive committee of the National District Attorneys Association. "Yes, eyewitness ID across races has its issues. But is there a rampant problem to the degree that we need to get judges to start telling juries this is the law? No."
Some criminal justice experts believe that mistakes are so pervasive that nothing short of wholesale reforms in identification procedures will fix the problem.