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Author of Picking Cotton speaks on campus

Campus News Editor

Published: Thursday, April 15, 2010

Updated: Thursday, April 15, 2010

New York Times best-selling author, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino spoke at UNCG last Thursday about the journey that brought her, along with best friend Ronald Cotton, to write the 2009 novel, Picking Cotton.  

Despite her small, 5’2’ frame and soft-spoken voice Thompson-Cannino easily captivated Alumni House, which was overflowing with students, teachers, alumni and community members to the extent that several extra chairs needed to be brought in before the guest speaker could begin.

Upon reaching the podium she apologized for Cotton’s absence, explaining that his work schedule at an insulation plant is often at odds with speaking engagements. She added with a laugh that she didn’t mind because “[she] and Ron have way too much fun together to work anyways.”

Although the book is just a year old, the duo has been featured on countless media outlets, including 60 minutes, The Today Show, a PBS documentary, …, throughout the past 12 years sharing their story of “injustice and redemption.”

She and Ron’s claim to fame is far from desirable – a college student brutally raped at knifepoint in her own apartment before escaping the intruder with nothing but her life and a bed sheet. And the man she confidently identified as her attacker, who served 11 years in prison for a crime he did not commit before being exonerated by DNA evidence. On the surface they appear to be the unlikeliest of friends, to say the least. But at heart they share the same pain: Both of their lives were changed forever on July 28, 1984. Both are victims of a fatally-flawed criminal “justice” system. Both are victims of a man named Bobby Poole.
To say that Jennifer Thompson was sitting on top of the world in the summer of 1984 would be an understatement. She was a 22-year-old senior at Elon College, now Elon University, with a 4.0 gpa, working two jobs to afford her own apartment and was deeply in love with a fellow student that she planned to marry. She had no way of knowing that this perfect world she had spent her entire life building would soon be shattered in an instant.

After a fun-filled day around town with her boyfriend, Thompson went to bed early with a throbbing headache. She awoke very suddenly around 3 a.m. when an eerie feeling of discomfort came over her. “Have you ever felt like someone was watching you but knew you were alone?” she asked the audience. “That was the exact feeling I had.”

While still focusing her eyes into the dark room to investigate, a man suddenly leapt on top of her, straddled her body, and placed a knife to her throat. “Shut up or I’ll cut you,” he demanded as she screamed. Immediately realizing that she was no physical match for her intruder, Thompson knew that her only chance for survival was to outsmart him.

In the following 20 minutes that she was raped, Thompson was careful to memorize everything she could about the man. “I studied his face for features to identify,” she recalls in the book. “The hairline, his awful mouth. Did he have scars? Tattoos? He had close-cropped hair. Although I didn’t want to look at him, I had to.”

Through a series of clever movements on Thompson’s part, she was eventually able to escape her apartment in a blanket and ran to a neighboring house. Her attacker went on to rape a second woman less than a mile away from Thompson’s apartment. In the hours that followed, she provided a substantial amount of information about her assault to authorities and completed a composite sketch of her rapist that was released to the media by noon of the same day.

The second rape victim was unable to give any information about the man to authorities as he beat her, held a flashlight to her eyes and even put a pillow over her face as he raped her.

Eleven days after the attack, Thompson was called into the Burlington Police Station to do a physical lineup of seven men who were similar in appearance to the composite sketch. She picked number 5 – Ronald Cotton. “It was him,” she said in the novel. “There was no doubt in my mind. I knew it. If I didn’t get him, he was going to come after me. The terror simply took my breath away.”

After a two-week long trial, two days of which Thompson was on the stand, Cotton was sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years. In the novel Thompson explains that she and her defense team toasted champagne “to the justice system.” “It was the happiest day I had in… six months,” she said. “I had done my job well, and Ronald Cotton would rot in prison. That night I lay in my bed and prayed. I prayed for Ronald Cotton to die miserably in jail, alone and afraid. But before he left this earth for hell, I asked that he know the horror of being raped. Sleep came over me easily.”

Over the next 11 years, Thompson slowly began to piece her life back together – a new life. Jennifer Thompson as she had always known herself died the night she was raped, she explained. “I was never the same person again.” She would often have nightmares of her rape, every time seeing Cotton’s face and would fill with so much hate for him that she could taste it. She eventually met and married a man from New York, had triplets and was busy raising a family and “making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” she joked.

During that same time span, Cotton sat behind bars pleading his innocence to anyone who would listen. Not long after he was imprisoned, another inmate was brought in for rape – his name was Bobby Poole. The first time Cotton saw him, he immediately noted how similar Poole looked to the composite sketch for Thompson’s rape. Cotton and Poole bore so much resemblance that some prison officials got them confused the entire time they served together. He found out from other inmates that Poole often bragged that Cotton was serving time for one of his crimes. He resented Poole and thought of killing him on several occasions, even going as far as creating a weapon to use but knew that doing so would make him no better of a man that Poole was. “I wanted to walk out someday, the same way I went in,” Cotton said in the novel. “I was no angel, but I wasn’t a murderer.”

Two years into his sentence Cotton was granted a retrial because the second rape victim’s existence and failure to identify him as the attacker had not been mentioned in the initial trial. It was a long stretch, but Cotton hoped it would give the opportunity to prove his innocence. He and his attorney brought the issue of Poole’s rumored confession to the judge, who held a voir dire hearing for the evidence, which meant that it would only be presented to him, without the jury in the room. Based on the evidence, the judge would then decide if the jury should be presented with it as well.

Poole was placed on the stand, in front of Thompson and the second victim. He denied any involvement in the rapes and both victims said they have never seen him before in their lives – that Cotton was their rapist. The evidence was dismissed and Cotton was found guilty of Thompson’s rape and the second victim’s rape, as she claimed in the second trial that was confident he was her attacker as well.

Cotton held out little hope for freedom until he began to learn about DNA evidence through the O.J. Simpson trial. With the help of a UNC Chapel Hill professor who had taken interest in his case and long-professed innocence, Cotton was approved for the test. On June 30, 1995, the charges against Cotton were dropped and he walked out of the Graham Courthouse a free man. Through the same test, Poole’s DNA was linked to the rapes and he was left with no choice but to confess. Poole committed 11 other rapes while Cotton was in jail before he was charged with one and imprisoned.

“Blood roared in my ears, an ocean of confusion crashing down on me, muffling their voices,” Thompson said in the novel, recalling when she was first told of the test results. “I couldn’t speak… it felt like everything I had staked my life on – how I made sense of what happened to me – suddenly fell through a trap door. Silently, I berated myself. It meant I had screwed up. They had brought Bobby Poole into the courtroom during the second trial. How could I have been in the same room as my rapist and not recoil? I didn’t even recognize him.”

“I have to say that the guilt over my part in robbing this man of so many years was not my first concern. I was waiting for Ronald Cotton – or his family – to come and exact revenge. It was only fair.

With time Thompson got over this fear and two years after Cotton was exonerated, he accepted Thompson’s request to meet her privately at a local church. She explained to the audience that she had no idea what to say to him, or even what to call him. Full of fear and sorrow, with tears in her eyes, the first words she ever said to the innocent man who spent 11 years in prison for her rape: “Mr. Cotton, if I spent every second of every minute of every day for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn’t even come close to how I feel. Can you ever forgive me?”

To her surprise, Cotton told her that he had forgiven her years ago and that all he wanted was “for us all to go on and have a happy life.” The two talked for several hours, hand-in-hand, crying, and hugged each other before they left the church.

Since that initial meeting, they have become very close friends, speaking on the phone and meeting each other often – even attending each other’s children’s’ events. They are both outspoken advocates for wrongful convictions, reform of eyewitness procedures, and speak as often as possible about their own ordeal, on the behalf of others’ that have experienced a similar injustice and how eyewitness mistakes are possible and what can be done to prevent some of them.

Thompson knows that she cannot change the events that have happened to her but hopes to use her story to improve the criminal justice system and its practices so that others don’t have to endure what she and Cotton have.

When asked, Thompson said that she doesn’t have nightmares of her rape as often as she did in the past, but when she does she doesn’t see any clear face. She explained that she forgave Poole for his crime, not for his sake, but for her own, and that simply replacing one face for another was not going to change anything for the better.
Poole died in prison in 1999 while serving multiple sentances.

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