Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption
By Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Toreno
St. Martin’s Press 2009
298 Page
s Prologue, Afterward

Even without its provocative title, Picking Cotton would be a winner. In a way, of course, it is an old, old story. In 1984, then Jennifer Thompson, a white woman and young college student, was raped at knife point by a black man who broke into her apartment while she lay asleep. During the assault she made it a point to look at her assailant and memorize what she could about his appearance. Cunningly, she was able to escape and her assailant fled. At the police department, she gamely assisted in the development of a composite sketch, and Ronald Cotton was arrested shortly thereafter. Ms. Thompson identified Cotton in a police lineup, even though she was unsure he was her rapist. Cotton, who had a shaky alibi and a minor criminal record, was tried and convicted; he was sentenced to life plus fifty years for first-degree rape, first-degree sexual offense, and first-degree breaking and entering.

Two years later the appellate court vacated Cotton’s sentence citing an error in the trial, and he was retried for raping Ms. Thompson and another women. Found guilty, he was given two life sentences and fifty-four years. Convinced Cotton would never get out of prison, Thompson moved on with her life as best she could. She later married and gave birth to triplets; she never stopped hating Ronald Cotton.

Cotton, too, tried as best he could to get on with his life–in prison. He immersed himself in the Bible and held onto his faith, convinced he would be freed one day. While he was involved in a few minor scuffles, he was mostly able to stay out of trouble. Cotton went to the gym every day to strengthen himself for the inevitable fights and sexual advances, and exhaust himself so that sleep was immediate. He learned to make hot chocolate using M & M’s, and hootch that was good enough to sell to fellow prisoners. And when he lost hope and planned to kill a fellow prisoner, he was able to resist doing so, in large part because his father reminded him of his innocence and his humanity.

Then one day he saw a fellow prisoner, Bobby Leon Poole, who bore a strong resemblance to him. Cotton instinctively knew that Poole was the rapist for whom he was doing time. He later got a tip from a fellow inmate that Poole had bragged about raping two white women. Poole denied the statement, and the alleged confession failed to sway the prosecutor or judge. Cotton spent more than eleven years in prison before a DNA test cleared him of the rapes.

Volumes have been written about wrongful convictions, especially those based on eyewitness identification. The Innocence Project, a national organization that works to exonerate those wrongfully convicted, reports that 27 people were exonerated in 2009. They served a total of 421 years in prison; James Bain Freed of Florida was recently exonerated after having served 37 years for a crime he did not commit. Eyewitness misidentification is by far the leading cause of wrongful convictions, totaling three-quarters of the cases in question.

In spite of these bleak statistics, however, Cotton knew that the truth would be discovered. Two years after he was released from prison, Thomson-Cannino asked to meet with Ronald Cotton to apologize for her mistake and seek his forgiveness; without hesitation, he gave it to her. So how could a man who lost 11 years of his life to a lie be so magnanimous?

Clinical psychologist Janis Abrams Spring, a renowned specialist on forgiveness, might say that Cotton realized early on what many of us do not: the person who hates and refuses to forgive may be more damaged than the person who committed the offense. Hate is corrosive to the human spirit, and if Poole was to survive his ordeal, he could not afford to surrender to hate and bitterness. According to Spring, it takes courage to forgive, and because every major religion teaches us that we must forgive or else we are bad people, freedom not to. In his forgiveness of Thompson-Cannino and his determination that he did not need to forgive Bobby Poole, Cotton was both generous and courageous.

Thomson-Cannino was not able to embrace forgiveness so easily. For two years after Cotton was released from prison, guilt and shame had nearly eaten her alive. She struggled to forgive herself, her rapist and the criminal justice system that had repeatedly assured her she was right. Then she was asked to appear on Nightline, a documentary show on PBS. The program intended to highlight mistakes made by eyewitnesses. At the end of the show, Ronald Cotton wondered aloud why Thomson-Cannino had never contacted him. That was the push she needed. Still, her family advised against it. Thomson-Cannino’s sister surmised that even though Cotton was not guilty of rape, he had a record and “was no choirboy"; her father compared the meeting to taking the lid off a garbage can and warned her about the stench.

To avoid detection by the media, the meeting had all the planning of a clandestine military operation. The two and their spouses–Cotton had since married–met at the First Baptist Church of Elon College, where Rob Johnson, the assistant district attorney, was a deacon. Thomson-Cannino asked to speak to the Cottons alone. She first told Ronald Cotton how sorry she was and asked “Can you ever forgive me?” Cotton answered “I forgive you. I’m not angry at you. . .All I want is for all of us to go on and have a happy life.”

They all hugged and cried, and both assumed they would never see each other again. Several weeks later, however, Thomson-Cannino called Cotton. She had been receiving media requests and did not want to do anything without talking to him. They began speaking around the country. They and their children participate in marches and protests, and have used their case to highlight the scourge of wrongful convictions based on eyewitness identifications. Both were in Columbus, Ohio this past November speaking to Ohio legislators on the importance of eyewitness identification reform.

Picking Cotton alternates between the two protagonists as they tell their stories. It is a useful device as it highlights the stark differences in how Cotton and Thomson-Cannino handled their terrible ordeal. But the real story in Picking Cotton is not the rapes or even the horrible miscarriage of justice; rather, it is the beautiful, open spirit of Ronald Cotton. Through more than 11 years and numerous ups and downs, he had–to borrow a phrase from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright–the audacity to hope. -------------- Dr. Marilyn K. Howard has joined the staff of the Free Press as our book critic. Dr. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.