Free to Forgive
My name is Jennifer Thompson. In 1984, I was a college student, 22 years old, and was brutally raped at knifepoint in my apartment. During the attack, I made a very concerted effort to pay attention to the facial features and anything I could remember to bring to the police department later on, hoping that I would survive. A few hours later, as I was sitting in the police department, it became very clear that I had gotten a very good look at the man who had raped me. And I hated this man with a vengeance and a blind hate that I can’t even articulate.
Within a few days we had a suspect, the composite sketch went out in the newspapers and one name popped up. And that name was Ronald Cotton. Under photo identification, I was able to identify my attacker and it was Ronald Cotton. Ronald Cotton was then brought into a physical lineup a few days after that, and once again, I picked Ronald Cotton. Ronald Cotton stood trial in 1985 in Alamance County in Burlington, North Carolina. It was a trial for his life. Ronald Cotton was found guilty of first-degree rape, first-degree sexual offense, and first-degree breaking and entering, and he was given life plus 50 years.
Two years later, the appellate court overturned the decision and we went back to court, and again Ronald Cotton was tried. This time he was found guilty of two rapes. Ronald Cotton was convicted, sentenced to two life sentences and 54 years. Ronald Cotton was never coming out of prison. And we toasted the judicial system at the DA’s office, because it worked for the victim. The bad guy was going to prison forever. Never ever to be free again, never to find love, never to have children.
In 1995, a DNA test was run and when it came back, it concluded that Ronald Cotton had never been my attacker. It was a man already in prison named Bobby Poole, a man who had been brought before me in 1987 under voir dire, and I completely did not recognize him. Bobby Poole died a few years later after Ronald Cotton had come out of prison after serving 11 years. Over 4,000 days, Ronald Cotton was in prison; over 4,000 days, Ronald wasn’t with his mother; 4,000 days, he wasn’t with his family. Ronald Cotton came out in 1995—June 30—and I was afraid of Ron. Two years later, I got the nerve—I don’t even know if it’s nerve—to see Ronald Cotton and ask him for forgiveness. And I said to Ronald, “If I spent every second of every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn’t come close to how sorry I am. How I feel in my heart.”
And Ronald Cotton, because he is the man he is, without blinking, took my hands, cried, and said “I forgive you. I’ve never hated you and I want you to be happy.” Ronald Cotton and I are good friends now—since 1997. We travel around the country, we’ve gone to Canada, done many interviews, and have written a book together. Ronald Cotton is my friend.
Excerpted from Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo. Copyright © 2009 St. Martin's Press.