Book Review: Picking Cotton: Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

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Ronald Cotton's Story

Imagine being falsely accused and convicted of rape as a young adult. After years behind bars a new inmate who looks a lot like you, is bragging that he's committed the crime for which you were convicted. Anger boils in your blood and you start making plans to kill him. Your father visits you in jail and you tell him your plan. He prays with you and asks you to be strong and leave it in God's hands saying, "You're innocent and there's still a chance you may be exonerated, but if you kill him you'll never be set free. Don't do it son."

Would you be strong enough to control your rage, patient enough to go through the legal system which has already failed in your attempts to get justice? And if you do get out of jail one day, will you seek revenge on the woman who falsely identified you as her rapist? After all, it was her emotional testimony that got you convicted, and she had to know she was lying, didn't she?

So far, our imaginary setup sounds like the plot for a great novel doesn't it? But this is a true story, the details of which are told in the book, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption. This book has two authors, Ronald Cotton, the falsely accused rapist, and Jennifer Thompson Canino, the woman who falsely accused him.

Both authors were speakers at the Savannah Book Festival last year. I was sitting in the front row of the auditorium waiting for their speeches to start when a very tall and polite, soft spoken black man with large brown eyes the size of walnuts asked if the seat next to me was taken. I shook my head no and just as he sat down, the event host stood up and introduced him as Ronald Cotton. Ronald rose so the packed audience could see him. The host then introduced Jennifer who was standing on the far side of the room. In an old-fashioned gesture reminiscent of allowing a lady to walk into a building, first, Ronald motioned for her to take the podium before him. It was obvious that he was nervous because beads of perspiration were already forming above his lips, and his hands were slightly shaking, as though he felt extremely uncomfortable being in the limelight, but I had the feeling he would have let Jennifer go first even if he'd relished public speaking, because it would have been the gentlemanly, respectful thing to do.

Jennifer Thompson's Story

Jennifer, a petite vivacious woman with a peaches and cream complexion, spoke in a clear animated voice that immediately captivated the audience. She described some of the details of the horrific rape she had endured in the summer of 1984 when an assailant broke into her apartment. During the rape, she had studied her attacker's face, determined to memorize it so she could testify against him if she lived through the attack. Another woman who lived nearby was also attacked on that same night and it was believed that both rapes had been done by the same assailant.

At the time of her rape, Jennifer was a graduate student who planned to marry her boyfriend upon graduation. She identified Ronald Cotton in a police line-up a few weeks after the rape and when his alibi turned out to be unsubstantiated, he was arrested. Because she had studied his face so carefully, Jennifer was certain that she had chosen the man who had assaulted her. Being a good Christian woman, she prayed to God every night that he would be convicted and given a harsh sentence. Her prayers were answered when the jury found him guilty of both rapes and burglaries in two separate trials and he was sentenced to life plus 54 years.

Jennifer told the audience what she had told the jury, that the rape had shattered all her plans for a bright future and had destroyed the relationship she had with her boyfriend.

After the guilty verdict was announced she had celebrated the victory with the detective and prosecutor who handled the case. All were convinced that justice had been done and that Jennifer's compelling testimony and unwavering identification of Ronald Cotton had been the reason a vicious dangerous rapist would stay behind bars where he would be unable to hurt any more innocent women. No one was troubled by the fact that the other victim had been unable to positively identify Ronald Cotton. They just believed that the other victim had been too traumatized to remember much of anything that had happened to her that night.

With the trial over, Jennifer felt like she'd literally been born again and was eager to put all this behind her and move forward. She fell in love, married a wonderful man and gave birth to several children. And then, just when she was starting to feel safe again, her worst nightmare happened. Ronald Cotton was asking for a new trial. DNA testing of evidence had been allowed in the recent trial of OJ Simpson and Ronald Cotton's new lawyers were the first in North Carolina to attempt to use DNA to overthrow a previous guilty verdict.

Jennifer was angry that the court approved his lawyers' request to present DNA evidence, but she was still confident that she had correctly identified her attacker. To her horror, the DNA testing proved she'd been mistaken and Ronald Cotton was officially cleared of all charges and released from prison on June 30, 1995. In July, the governor of North Carolina officially pardoned him which made him eligible for a lump sum payment of $5000 ($500 per year of wrongful incarceration).

Jennifer Thompson's Struggle For Forgiveness

After Ronald's release, Jennifer struggled with unbearable feelings of guilt that she'd been responsible for destroying an innocent man's reputation and life. How could she have made such a terrible mistake, and how could God, whom she'd prayed to all those years, have allowed it to happen? She was terrified that Ronald would try to seek vengeance on her. The anguish in her voice was palpable as she told this part of the story to the audience and I was acutely aware that the man she had unintentionally wronged was sitting a few inches away from me. My eyes brimmed with tears at the thought of the injustice he'd endured.

Jennifer said, "Up until that time I had considered myself a good Christian woman and yet I had seen no hypocrisy in the fact that I'd wanted revenge on Ronald Cotton and that I had vowed never to forgive him. I'd even prayed nightly that his time in prison would be harsh for what he'd done to me. Now my unforgiving nature and bitterness was directed at myself and I became convinced that when he got out he was going to hunt me down and hurt me and/or my family."

You must read the book to hear what happened when Ronald and Jennifer did meet face to face for the first time after his release. Word of caution: be sure you have a box of tissues handy when you read it. You will be inspired and amazed at what the human spirit and heart are capable of achieving and after finishing the book it's doubtful you'll ever view our criminal justice system the same again.

Many people saw racial injustice as the reason Ronald Cotton was convicted during the first 2 trials, and it could be argued that was partially true, but after other similar cases came through courts around the country the most common denominator in wrongful convictions for rape was that the man had been convicted on the basis of a single eyewitness testimony, usually of the victim herself. And the most surprising thing was that some scientific studies were done that showed most eyewitness victims have faulty memories, especially when picking someone out of a line-up, because the victim assumes the police have rounded up the man they believe committed the crime and therefore the victim will work hard to "match" one of the faces to the face of the man who raped her.

Rate this Book Review

3.7 out of 5 stars from 3 ratings of Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

The Innocence Project

The lawyers who eventually helped overturn Ronald Cotton's case were part of an Innocence Project founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld. The Innocence Project works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing. It's a national project and to date they have helped exonerate 261 people including 17 who served time on death row. By using DNA testing, they have proven that wrongful convictions are more common than previously thought. The lawyers and student lawyers who work on the project are dedicated to freeing all innocent people who remain incarcerated.

Right Of Defendant To Have DNA Testing

Do you believe that all prisoners who claim they've been wrongfully convicted should have the legal right to demand DNA testing if it wasn't done during their initial trial and there are adequate DNA

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Comments 26 comments

BobbiRant profile image

BobbiRant 5 years ago from New York

Isn't it funny how the disproportinate number of prisoners are the minority groups. To some misguided people, this will tell us minorities commit more crimes, because we All know nice little white people Never use drugs or steal or kill anyone (even though most serial killers are white). What a fairytale that one was I just told. It also amazes me, with a secondary degree in Criminal Justice, that justice and criminal justice Never meet each other and definitely are not one in the same. Judges are crooked and prosecuters just want a conviction to look good and justify keeping their jobs. Great write.


Alternative Prime profile image

Alternative Prime 5 years ago from > California

The "Innocence Project" is now an essential element of the overall appeals process. Allowing defendants to submit DNA evidence which could potentially prove their innocence and exonerate them was long over due.

For better or worse, we have a legal system here in the United States in which Attorney's are bound by an oath to provide their client with a "Zealous Defense" no matter how heinous the crime, just in case microscopic evidence such as DNA surfaces in the future to clear that persons name. This I believe is one important aspect that separates this great country from some others.

Great Hub "HBN"


Stephanie Henkel profile image

Stephanie Henkel 5 years ago from USA

This story certainly makes us stop and think about the judicial process. While I wholeheartedly agree that the guilty should be punished, it scares me to think that an innocent person could spend years, and possibly their whole lives, in jail for a crime they didn't commit. This is a very intriguing review!


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina Author

Hi BobbiRant,

You raise some valid points about our criminal justice system. There are many flaws and injustices, some intentional, some due to prejudice, and even DNA evidence is not conclusive if it has been intentionally tampered with, lost, destroyed or incompetently mishandled.

The Ronald Cotton case occurred before DNA evidence was even admissable in court. It was also a bizarre case in that the real rapist wasn't just another black man, it was a man who looked like Ronald Cotton's identical twin, but unfortunately only Ronald was in the line-up on the night Jennifer identified Ronald as her attacker.

Coming from my own background in nursing, and having post graduate courses in forensics after DNA was starting to be used in courts, I was trained that rape victims are, by the nature of the crime, traumatized and trauma often skews memory. Following a proper chain of command for the evidence gathered during the initial physical examination by the doctor and nurse is vital or the evidence will not be allowed in court. In the late 1990's specially trained teams of legal nurse consultants and doctors were set up and on call 24 hours a day so that evidence would be consistently handled in rape cases. The system isn't perfect, but it's better than we had before.

The most amazing thing about the Ronald Cotton case is that when he met face to face with Jennifer he was able to completely forgive her because he saw in her eyes and demeaner that she was scared of him and was truly repentent that she had put the wrong man behind bars. He saw that she, like he, was a victim of the real rapist. At that moment, his heart shifted and he felt moved to gently reassure her that she had nothing to fear from him and that he forgave her for what had happened. In this case, the real rapist was the only one who had knowingly done him wrong, and Ronald recognized that fact after meeting with Jennifer.


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina Author

Alternative Prime:) Well said. I agree that the Innocence Project is essential because it provides a mechanism to correct a terrible wrong. Thanks for stopping by to read my hub and leaving such an insightful comment.

Stephanie:) Thanks. I share your feelings, and with the death penalty, there's the potential for the most unthinkable injustice of all- the killing of a truly innocent man.


katiem2 profile image

katiem2 5 years ago from I'm outta here

Honestly, I don't understand why every option available is not ALWAYS given to prove or disprove the guilt or innocence of those being accused. We are only mere humans and what do we know. Great light to this issue and thank you! Love, Peace and Joy! :) Katie


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina Author

Thank you, Katiem.

I agree that every available option should be utilized. Too much is at stake not to do so.


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

How awful for all involved. Had horrible to have to spend time in jail for something you didn't so. And, how awful to be the one wrongly identified someone and help take those years of life away from an innocent man. You write-up is excellently put. I was rivited from beginning to end. Voted up and awesome.


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina Author

Hi KoffeeKlatch Gals,

Thanks so much for the feedback and for voting this hub up. I greatly appreciate it.

We like to believe that those in prison belong there, but unfortunately that's not the reality in every case. What made the Ronald Cotton case so powerful for me was that he was able to truly forgive Jennifer Canino and that she, too, has become an advocate to help free wrongfully convicted prisoners.


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

Your book reviews are always 'Over the Top!' I am so impresssed. AND, so excited to be clued into another wonderful book to check out. Got an 'Aliterate' for my Christmas present from my daughters. Guess they know what their mama likes. :) (Ironically, I bought them each a kindle this year-guess I know what they like as well, LOL)


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina Author

Hi Denise,

Wow. You really made my day with your positive feedback. This book was really intense, as was hearing both authors tell their stories in person at the Savannah Book festival last year. What an awesome and also free, event!

Glad your daughters and you were happy with their Christmas presents. Sounds like a wonderful literary family. Rare in this day and age, but beautiful.

Thanks for your ongoing support of my writings. I really appreciate it.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

It is good that DNA evidence is being utilized for current cases as well as using it (if it still exists) for past cases such as this one illustrated. Obviously traumatized people would probably not always be the best witnesses although they would try to do their best.

It was heartwarming to know that Ronald Cotton was able to forgive his accuser especially after realizing that she did not identify him out of any mal-intent.

Justice is always the ideal but not always realized, sad to say.


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina Author

Hi Peggy W,

I totally agree. The chapter where Ronald Cotton forgave Jennifer Thompson Canino was extremely moving and showed the strength of his own character.

Thanks for adding an insightful comment. I always appreciate the feedback that you leave on my hubs as they add to the content.


Sunnie Day 5 years ago

Very good hub! I will have to get this book. What a heart wrenching and moving story. Thank you for breaking it down in such an insightful way.

Happy Thursday,

Sunnie


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina Author

Hi Sunnie Day,

Thanks for taking time to leave a comment and for brightening my Thursday. Hope you do get a chance to read the book.


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

I had to revisit this b/c I read at the top: Savannah Book Festival and wanted to comment. I just read in the Southern Livingn mag this month about the Festival. They are featuring Savannah. My thoughts, when I read this was, "I think I'll take a trip to visit that festival one year." I was checking your profile page tonight to see if there was anything new and this title caught my eye. I love synchronicity.

I hope you are well. I haven't seen much of you around the hubpages lately. You okay?


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina Author

All is well with myself and hubby, but we've been very busy helping our son relocate to South Carolina and I haven't been writing or reading much on Hubpages. Hope to start being active online in May. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and concern and all the encouragement and inspiration you've given me.

I love synchronicity and think it's always fun to recognize its occurrence.


Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

I heard about this on NPR, one of the programs (maybe Diane Rehm show?) interviewed them. I'm also familiar with the Innocence project, I believe that is up in Northwestern U here in IL.

Voted up and beautiful. Thanks for writing it.


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina Author

Hi Danette,

Yes, the case received a lot of publicity especially after the book came out. I love NPR and the Diane Rehm show but missed the interview you're talking about.

Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to read this hub and I appreciate the vote up.


Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

Dr Bill Tollefson 5 years ago from Southwest Florida

Savannah, GA. That pick brought by some great images in my life. That was one wonderful city with a lot of history. Thank for sharing.


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 5 years ago from South Carolina Author

Hi Dr. Bill,

There's nothing like taking a horse drawn carriage tour through the historical squares, especially in early spring when the trees and shrubs are all in bloom. It's truly a magical place. I never visit Hilton Head without also trekking over to Savannah for a few daytrips.

Thanks for taking time to read my hub and leave a comment. I greatly appreciate your support.


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 3 years ago from South Carolina Author

Hi Pearyb,

Thanks for leaving such an insightful comment.

I agree with what you've said and appreciate your input.


mary615 profile image

mary615 2 years ago from Florida

My mother was born in Savannah, Ga. and I have a daughter who lives there. Excellent book review. I would certainly like to read it. I see my Hub on picking cotton in the south is a related Hub to this one. I guess because of your title.

So nice to see you!


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 2 years ago from South Carolina Author

Good to see you, Mary.

Glad you enjoyed the review. The book covers a serious topic, but was fascinating to read because it was such an honest portrayal of injustice from starkly different view points and the fact that the accused/falsely convicted man and the raped woman collaborated on it, and later became friends is a testament to the positive aspects of the human spirit.

Savannah, GA, is a beautiful city and the annual book fair brings authors from all over the United States. If your daughter loves books she probably goes to it.

It's very cool that both your mom and now your daughter have ties to Savannah. I'm sure some parts of the city looked very similar when your mother was born, but many areas have changed since then. The historic riverfront used to be factories and now it's trendy restaurants, gift shops, galleries and hotels.

Hugs,

Gail


PlethoraReader profile image

PlethoraReader 2 years ago from Silicon Valley

Thank you for sharing this review, I had not heard this story before and now I have to add it to my reading list. I have done quite a bit of reading on the psychology of eyewitness testimony which has been proven to be unreliable even in the best of situations. Horrifying to hear how it destroyed several lives.

Thank you again for sharing


Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 2 years ago from South Carolina Author

Dear PlethoraReader,

I appreciate your insightful comment. The psychology of eyewitness testimony has proven time and again that what eyewitnesses think they saw, may well be incorrect, especially during the stress of feeling their lives are in danger.

Yes, it's horrifying when eyewitness testimony given in good faith puts someone behind bars and destroys several lives.

What was most poignant in this case, is the fact that Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were sharing their story together, and that Ronald helped Jennifer forgive herself through his own forgiveness of her.

Before DNA evidence proved she'd been mistaken in her identification of him as the man who had attacked her, she truly believed he was guilty and she was horrified about the injustice that was done to him, and also afraid he might want to seek retribution.

When he responded with forgiveness, it helped her, too, to heal.

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