Book Review: Picking Cotton: Memoir of Injustice and Redemption
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.
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Excellent Article About Innocence Project
- 300 Prisoners Exonerated by DNA Evidence
This article is about the 300 prisoners exonerated through DNA testing. The Innocent Project's purpose and goals are explained in details. The details of two of the exonerated prisoners are explained.
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.