For 11 years, a North Carolina woman slept comfortably, secure in the knowledge that she had put the man who raped her in prison for life. And for 11 years, that man endured the endless days of confinement praying that someday, somehow, his innocence would be proved.
On Tuesday, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and the man she mistakenly put in prison, Ronald Cotton, shared a couch on the TODAY show as they told co-host Meredith Vieira a tale about pain and redemption — and the tricks that memory can play on people with the best intentions.
“This can happen to anyone. And hopefully it does not happen to them,” Cotton told Vieira.
Friends and co-authors
Today he and Thompson-Cannino are best friends. In fact, they’ve written a book together: “Picking Cotton: A Memoir of Injustice and Redemption.” They sometimes travel together too, giving talks about the ways memory can deceive us, and they are working to change the way police conduct photo lineups.
They are also a testament to the power of the human spirit. When DNA evidence ultimately proved that another man committed the rape and Cotton was freed, Thompson-Cannino was consumed by guilt and shame. She was also terrified that the man from whom she felt she had stolen 11 years would attempt to exact vengeance on her and her triplet children.
But Cotton had long since forgiven her. “I couldn’t carry on serving my time in the prison system holding grudges and thinking about retaliating against a person that made an honest mistake. I had to proceed on in life regardless,” he told Vieira.
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was 22 and a student at Elon College in North Carolina when a man broke into her house during the night and raped her. As he assaulted her, she memorized his face, his voice, everything she could about him. She intended to survive, and when it was over, she wanted to put him in prison for what he did.
After the rapist assaulted her, she offered to make him a drink, and when he agreed, she fled the house, wrapped only in a blanket. A couple living next door let her into their house and called police. After being treated for her injuries, Thompson-Cannino helped police draw a composite sketch of her attacker.
‘100 percent certain’
Her description seemed to fit Cotton, who was the same age as the victim. He had had several minor scrapes with the law, and several years earlier, when he was 16, he had sneaked into his girlfriend’s bedroom through a window and was caught snuggling with the girl by her mother. The mother called police, and Cotton was charged with several offenses, including breaking and entering and sexual assault. The charges were eventually all dismissed, but Cotton’s name and mug shot were now on file.
Investigators showed Thompson-Cannino a number of photos of possible suspects. She now knows that her mind was trying to find the person in the group who most closely resembled the sketch she had helped the police artist draw.
“There’s six photographs in front of me, so consciously I’m trying to figure out the person in the photographic lineup that most closely resembles the sketch, as opposed to the actual attacker,” she told Vieira.
During many of those years in prison, Cotton actually knew who the real rapist was. His name was Bobby Poole, and he landed in the same prison as Cotton. The two bore a striking physical resemblance to one another, and to the police sketch of Thompson-Cannino’s attacker.
The fragility of memory
Cotton even asked Poole if he raped Thompson-Cannino. Poole denied it, but one of Poole’s friends told Cotton the man confessed to him. Cotton used that information to win a retrial, but Thompson-Cannino’s memory by now had firmly replaced her rapist’s face with that of Cotton. When she saw both Poole and Cotton in the same courtroom, she again identified Cotton as her rapist with absolute certainty.
“That’s just the way memory works,” Thompson-Cannino now knows. “Memory takes certain visuals. In my case, after doing a composite sketch, that was the last visual I had in my memory, and it’s very subconscious.”
The second trial came three years after the first, and during that time, Thompson-Cannino’s memory cemented Cotton’s image as that of her attacker.
The years in prison were a nightmare, Cotton told Vieira. “I just had to keep myself together, which wasn’t easy at all. I was missing my family, my loved ones. I took it day to day and hoped that true justice would prevail and open a door for me.”
Cotton’s break came in 1995 when he was watching the O.J. Simpson trial on television. Attorneys and investigators kept talking about DNA evidence, something he had never heard of before. He contacted his attorneys, who were able to recover one tiny sample of sperm from the rape kit that had been used to treat Thompson-Cannino 11 years earlier.
There was enough DNA in the sample to prove Cotton was innocent and Poole was guilty. And just like that, Cotton was a free man.
A new life
“It was like a dream come true. I couldn’t believe it,” Cotton told Vieira. “The warden of the penitentiary called me in his office and told me I was going home tomorrow. I told him, ‘Please don’t pull my leg, it’s already long enough.’ But it was true. I finally went home to be with my family and loved ones.”
Cotton began the difficult task of beginning a new life. He got some money in compensation from the state of North Carolina, but he also worked two jobs to get himself back on his feet. He married and today is the father of a 10-year-old daughter.
As for Thompson-Cannino, she was torn apart by the revelation that her dead-certain testimony had imprisoned an innocent man.
“I was devastated, I really was,” she told Vieira. “One of the things that is really important is that I never felt any shame being a rape victim. I knew that I had been innocent that night. I now felt this debilitating guilt and shame over 11 years of a man’s life [that] was just gone.”
She lived with her mental torment for two years before finally reaching out to Cotton. When they met, she told him if she atoned every day for the rest of her life, it would not be enough to make up for the years Cotton had lost.
Her fears that he would want revenge were unfounded, and he quickly allayed her guilt. Cotton simply told her he had forgiven her long ago; it wasn’t her fault.
Today, when they travel together to give speeches, people sometimes assume they’re a couple and ask them how they met.
It is, they reply, a long story.