Linda: In July of 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student in Burlington, North Carolina, just about to graduate. She had a boyfriend, also a college student, and they were talking about getting married.
In the middle of the night, an intruder entered her apartment while she was sleeping, held a knife to her neck, sat on her legs and threatened to kill her if she screamed. Following the brutal rape she was able to run out of the apartment, taking refuge with a neighbor. By the time the police arrived, the rapist had fled. Jennifer was taken to the hospital for vaginal swabs, saliva swabs, and pubic hair combings, then to the police station to give her statement.
A few days later, she was given six photos and she positively identified one of the men as her assailant. It took her five minutes. Eleven days after the assault, she was brought to the police station to view a physical line up of seven black men. Jennifer picked number five. There was no doubt in her mind. He was the same man she had picked from the photos, Ronald Cotton.
Jennifer’s romance did not survive the crisis. She and her boyfriend broke up. Jennifer hoped there was a death penalty for Cotton. There had been a second rape victim that same night. Although the second rape victim did not pick Cotton out of the line-up, her testimony was not allowed to be a part of his trial.
Cotton pled not guilty at his trial. There was no physical evidence of any kind, no fingerprints or clothing. After four hours of deliberation, the jury found him guilty, sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years. He was convicted on Jennifer’s testimony alone.
While Ronald Cotten was incarcerated, Bobby Poole is convicted of rape and enters the same prison. Cotton recognizes his resemblance to the composite pictures that went into the newspaper and was displayed on TV. Even the guards in the prison couldn’t tell Cotton and Poole apart. Poole confesses to Kenny, another inmate that he perpetrated the two rapes that night of which Cotton was convicted. Kenny tells Ronald Cotton of Poole’s confession and Cotton writes to TV stations, newspapers, legal organizations and his attorney to expose the mistaken identity that got him convicted. He gets no response.
After three years in prison, Mary Reynolds, the second woman who was raped that same night changed her story and pointed to Cotton as her rapist. During the jury selection all black jurors were excluded resulting in an all white jury. Poole also confessed to the rapes to another inmate Dennis Bass. Cotton’s lawyer asked for the judge to allow Dennis Bass to testify, but the request was denied. During the second trial the jury only took one hour to find Cotton guilty, another wrongful conviction resulting in two life sentences plus 180 years.
In their book, Cotton describes the horrors of being incarcerated and the anguish of having his freedom taken for a crime he did not commit. His only joy was singing in the prison choir. Because of overcrowding of the prison in North Carolina, he is transferred to a facility in Tennessee, an eleven-hour drive from his family home, preventing visits from those who care about him and interfering with his contact with his legal team.
In 1995, DNA testing was done and after eleven years he was released from prison. Cotton was the first person in the state of North Carolina to be exonerated due to DNA evidence.
Poole confessed to both rapes. When Jennifer was told about the DNA findings and Poole’s confession, she realized that she had made a terrible mistake, judging herself for being stupid, and filling with shame.
“I couldn’t speak. It felt like everything I staked my life on, how I made sense of what happened to me, suddenly fell through a trap door. Silently I berated myself, eleven years. How do eleven years pass when you are locked up for a crime you didn’t commit? I couldn't begin to imagine. For me, they were eleven years measured in birthdays, first days of school, Christmas mornings. Ronald Cotton and I were exactly the same age, and he had none of those things because I picked him. He lost eleven years of time with his family, eleven years of being denied falling in love, being married, and having kids. The guilt suffocated me.”
Ronald Cotton was a devoutly religious Christian and when he went on The Larry King television show stated that he was NOT angry. If the conviction had been in the 1970s, he could have been executed for the crime. His attorney helped him get a job and that’s where he met his wife, Robin. “It was like a dream come true. I couldn’t believe it,” Cotton said.
Jennifer agreed to be a part of a PBS special on how eyewitnesses can make mistakes. She agreed to do it in an attempt to continue her recovery from the guilt of robbing Cotton of eleven years of his life. She agreed to do the TV piece with a condition that she would have no contact with Cotton.
Jennifer wanted to understand the process that she had gone through that made her so sure that Cotton had been her rapist. The TV producer assured her that she would learn how the mind and memory could do that. During the month of filming, the crew reported to her that Cotton was a wonderful guy and wasn’t angry with her. When she watched the tape she heard Cotton say, “I would like to hear what she has to say in her own words to me.” Jennifer decided that she must meet with him and apologize to his face.
It was an emotional meeting held at a church. She told him how sorry she was and asked him, “Can you ever forgive me?’ Cotton said, “I don't want you to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder thinking I’m out to get you, or harm your family. All I want is for us all to go on to have a happy life.” They ended up embracing and crying. They realized that they were both victims of Bobby Poole.
Jennifer learned from an expert how memory can be contaminated by the way that eyewitness evidence is collected. Eyewitnesses often pick the “next best one” (what the experts refer to as unconscious transference) when the real perpetrator isn’t in the lineup. Ron and Jennifer stayed in communication coordinating their interview requests and became friends. Jennifer had been an ardent supporter of the death penalty until she was invited to speak in Texas and met twelve men and women who were wrongfully convicted and heard their stories. Since they were now friends, when Amnesty International asked Jennifer to speak on behalf of a prisoner on death row, convicted on eyewitness testimony, she invited Cotton to accompany her.
Rather than having hatred, fear and bitterness contaminate their lives, these two became unlikely friends and went on to use the suffering that they had each gone through for years.
Their wounds became the source of their commitment to contribute compassion, forgiveness and justice. They work together to raise consciousness about how easily eyewitness evidence can be dead wrong and innocent people can be convicted.
It was the combination of their joint presentations that made their work so impressive to those that they addressed, that succeeded in changing some minds that formerly had been closed to become more open, an important contribution to the penal system where tragically, there are too many incarcerations that are based on mistakes.
Today, Jennifer and Cotton continue to travel together to speak to groups throughout the country. People sometimes assume they’re a couple and ask them how they met. “It is,” they reply, “a long story.”
Jennifer and Ron’s story is featured in the book they co-authored, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption
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