Sunday, May 16, 2010. 10:10 AM
Picking Cotton: A Story of Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation
Deryl Davis, producer of the Forum, serves as host of this Forum. He and the Cathedral’s guests, Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, discuss a remarkable story of overcoming injustice and finding healing and reconciliation through faith.
A quarter-century ago, Cotton was wrongly convicted of raping Thompson-Cannino and another woman. He spent years in prison until DNA evidence finally exonerated him. The real attacker raped eleven more women before that same DNA evidence identified him.
How could such an awful error happen? Thompson-Cannino mistakenly identified Cotton after a series of events. Shortly after she was attacked, Thompson-Cannino worked with police to develop a composite sketch, one facial feature at a time. A newspaper reader saw the sketch and called the police, naming Cotton and claiming to have seen Cotton in the area where Thompson-Cannino was attacked. Thompson-Cannino was then shown Cotton’s picture in a photo array.
The following day, Cotton appeared in a police lineup. Thompson-Cannino identified him without realizing that she recognized him only from the photo lineup—and not from the horrendous crime.
Thompson-Cannino compares the “contamination” of memory with newly fallen snow: “Once someone walks in it, you can never have that same snow again.” When memories are influenced, the truth can be lost. Eyewitness identification, according to Thompson-Cannino, has brought about 75 percent of wrongful convictions in the United States; she bases the figure on recent exonerations.
By a dreadful coincidence, Cotton was imprisoned in the same facility with the actual rapist, Bobby Poole. Cotton says that his Christian upbringing enabled him to withstand the wrongful conviction and years of imprisonment. His father also helped, particularly by convincing Cotton not to act on a plan to murder Poole in the prison.
Thompson-Cannino also relied on her faith, but she is now relieved that one of her prayers was not answered: “I prayed every single night to God that [Ronald Cotton] would die in prison.” Her hatred of Cotton went away after the truth came out eleven years after the attack, “but then my hatred turned to fear. Now I was afraid of him, because I thought … he hated me and would seek revenge on myself and on my children. And I was ashamed and I was guilty.”
Only after watching a PBS documentary about the exoneration did Thompson-Cannino meet Cotton. “What I learned from Ronald was that love and hate can’t coexist in the same heart,” she comments.
“People may do you wrong, and you … have that little anger toward them, and think about getting even, but that’s not the way to live. Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Cotton says. “You have to love, live, and forgive.”
The wrongfully convicted man and mistaken victim met in a pastor’s office. “She was nervous. I could tell from the expression on her face,” Cotton recollects. “I know she suffered as well as myself.”
He had begun to forgive Thompson-Cannino in prison, while at prayer. “If you forgive, live, and let go, it’s much easier for you,” Cotton summarizes. “You just take it to the Lord in prayer. He’ll lift that load up off of you, because he knows best.”
Both Cotton and Thompson-Cannino now work to improve all aspects of the process that led to Cotton’s wrongful conviction. Thompson-Cannino assists crime victims. Both oppose the death penalty and support changes such as videotaping police interviews to avoid false confessions.
About Jennifer Thompson-Cannino
Jennifer Thompson-Cannino is co-author (with Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo) of the New York Times bestselling memoir Picking Cotton, about the wrongful imprisonment of a man accused of rape (Cotton) and his reconciliation with the woman who mistakenly identified him (Thompson-Cannino). The co-authors, who often speak on judicial reform and related issues, received the 2008 Soros Justice Media Fellowship for their book.
About Ronald Cotton
Ronald Cotton is co-author (with Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Erin Torneo) of the New York Times bestselling memoir Picking Cotton, about the wrongful imprisonment of a man accused of rape (Cotton) and his reconciliation with the woman who mistakenly identified him (Thompson-Cannino). The co-authors, who often speak on judicial reform and related issues, received the 2008 Soros Justice Media Fellowship for their book.