Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Picking Cotton

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson
answer questions at Miami University.
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was raped in the middle of the night in her own off-campus apartment. She woke to find a man in her room. Once she realized that he intended to rape her, she decided to focus on her assailant and memorize every detail about him that she could in order to help the police catch and convict him. She narrowly escaped her assailant that night and underwent a rape kit at the hospital and worked with the police to make a composite sketch based on her description of the man. She later picked Ronald Cotton as her rapist from a batch of photos, and identified him again in a line-up. Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He served 11 years before DNA evidence proved he was innocent in Jennifer’s attack and he was exonerated of the crime.

Thompson and Cotton have since collaborated on a book that tells their stories, and now make public appearances together to bring awareness to the fallibility of eye witness identification and the number of people wrongly convicted based on that testimony.

I was fortunate enough to hear them speak last night as part of Miami University’s Criminal Justice Week. The room was packed to standing room only, and yet, as Jennifer spoke, you could have heard a pin drop. No one moved. No one rustled or made any sound at all. We were riveted.

I know that Jennifer has told her story hundreds, if not thousands of times now, and yet, she mustered up all the fear, anger, rage, and hate that she went through. Her performance made us feel as though the rape and trial had happened just months ago. We were right there with her, hating Ronald Cotton, too. Except that Ronald Cotton was the wrong man.

Once she finished, he rose from his seat and walked up to the podium to tell his account of the story. Soft-spoken and much less emotional than Jennifer, Ronald described the confusion he felt when he heard that the police were looking for him. He went to the police station to clear up the matter and was instead handcuffed, arrested, and placed on $150,000 bail that his family could not pay. Later, in court, Jennifer identified him again as her attacker and the jury came back with a guilty verdict.

He told us all of this matter-of-factly. Then the judge asked him if he had anything to say and instead of words, he broke into song; a song he had written to God while he was incarcerated awaiting trial. He sang it for us, just as he had in court, and we sat spellbound.

Despite the fact that Ronald has shared the platform with Jennifer during all their speaking engagements, his speech was not as polished and practiced. Instead, his quiet demeanor came through and we could feel what a gentle man he is.

Both Jennifer and Ronald described what life was like once he was released from prison. He wanted to meet her, but she was scared to death that he would hate (and possibly hurt) her for what her testimony had done to him. Family members finally convinced her to meet him so the two met at a church. She immediately apologized to him, telling him that she could never apologize enough, but hoped that someday he could forgive her.

“I forgave you years ago,” he said. And that changed everything for her.

I read Picking Cotton a couple years ago, so was already familiar with the story, but hearing them speak together was more powerful than I ever could have expected. They intend to keep traveling around the country, encouraging people to work toward justice reform. If you ever have the opportunity to hear them speak, do. Their story will change you, too.

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