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Victim of wrongful conviction forgives accuser

Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint and identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. After serving 11 years in prison, Cotton was exonerated by DNA evidence. Two years later, Thompson and Cotton met, and together they penned a memoir. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Jennifer Thompson was raped by a man who broke into her apartment. She escaped, and identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. Ronald insisted that she was mistaken — but Jennifer’s positive identification kept him behind bars. After serving 11 years, Ronald took a DNA test that proved his innocence. Jennifer and Ronald met face to face two years later, and forged an unlikely friendship. Together, they wrote the memoir “Picking Cotton.” An excerpt.

Sadie met me at the police station when they brought me in to do a physical lineup. Detective Gauldin thought it would be a good idea for her to be there. It was August 8, 1984, eleven days after my assault. He called me the day before to say the lineup was set for 2:00 p.m. the next day, and that Sully, the bearded detective I had met during the photo identification, would drive me to and from the station.

I sat in a chair in the detective’s office with Sadie. Detective Gauldin came in. “How are you holding up?” he asked gently.

“I’m fine,” I said. I didn’t want him to see me as weak or unfocused, to be worried that I couldn’t do this.

“Here’s how it’s going to work: You’re going to be shown seven black males of similar appearance. They will be standing in a line, holding a card with a number. Each of them will step forward, turn completely around to the right, say something, and step back. If after viewing all seven you are able to say that one of them was the person who raped you, write his number on the piece of blank paper you are going to be given and hand it to me. If you don’t see the man who raped you, leave the paper blank and hand it to me. If you’re not sure, leave the paper blank and hand it to me. If after seeing all seven you want any of the men to repeat the procedure, just ask me. Don’t feel compelled to make an identification. Make sense?”

I nodded.

“All right then, let’s go in there.”

Sadie and I followed him down a corridor to a basement room. I had only seen stuff like this on TV, where you stood behind a wall with a window in it. Nothing could have prepared me for what I walked into.

I stiffened and tried to suck in air with an audible gasp. There were seven black men lined up against the wall. All that separated them from me was a conference room table. They could see me. Later, I learned that this had been a transitional building — a new Burlington police station was being built near the railroad tracks. But at that moment, I figured that’s the way lineups were really done, that TV had gotten it wrong.

“It’s OK. I will be right here. Nothing can hurt you,” said Gauldin.

Sadie and I stood behind the table. There were maybe six feet between me and the lineup. There were other officers in the room, and some other men I didn’t recognize.

Breathe. Breathe, I told myself. I didn’t want to pass out, but I was sick with fear. If he was here, now he knew what I looked like in broad daylight. He knew my name. If he was here, I couldn’t screw this up.

Starting with the man holding a card that read “1,” each stepped forward, closer to the table, turned to the side, then back to the front, and spoke.

“Shut up or I’ll cut you! Hey, baby, how ya doing? Your man’s over in Germany. It’s been a long time.”

The words hit me like a punch to the stomach. Hearing what that man had uttered to me, his face right above mine. I had to make my mind split, the way it had that night. I didn’t want to make eye contact with any of them, despite trying to look at each of them closely. I concentrated on my job — to find him if he was here — even though my mind vividly replayed scenes as each man repeated the lines.

Number four began his turn. He had on a light yellow shirt and jeans. A shudder of recognition went through me. Was this him?

Number five went, next. When he said, “Shut up or I’ll kill you!” I froze. He and number four looked so much alike, so much like my attacker. Why did he say, “I’ll kill you?” I wondered. Was it a trick? He had on a brown and beige mock turtleneck shirt and jeans.

The rest of the men finished. I kept looking at numbers four and five. I turned to Detective Gauldin, “It’s between four and five. Can I see them again?” I whispered.

Number four repeated the procedure. His facial features were so close, but his body didn’t seem right. My rapist had been lankier.

“Shut up or I’ll cut you!”

Number five got it right this time. I looked at his face. He had a light mustache; his eyes looked cold. His body was long and lean. He knew to wear brown, I thought, because he knew he had been wearing dark blue the night of my assault. And he knew to wear his hair differently.

It was him. 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. He was standing right in front of me, and if the police didn’t lock him up, surely he would walk out of there, find me, and finish the job. The next time, I was certain, I would not get away. He would kill me.

I wrote “5” on the piece of paper in front of me, and slid it over to Detective Gauldin. He nodded, and showed it to a few other men in the room. Then they led me back out, into the hallway.

As always, I wanted to know how I had done.

“We thought that might be the guy,” said Gauldin. “It’s the same person you picked from the photos.”

My knees nearly gave out from under me. We got him. Sadie squeezed my hand, proud of me. There were so many others who never even got this far, she told me. So many who would never tell anyone what had happened to them, much less seek prosecution.

The week after my arrest, they brought me back to the station for a lineup, where I was told to walk forward, turn 180 degrees to the right, and then read a statement off a card: “Shut up or I’ll cut you! Hey, baby, how ya doing? Your man’s over in Germany. It’s been a long time.” There were seven of us standing there; I was number five. The detectives and my attorney, Phil, stood in the back of the room, while some of the officers were sitting down with Ms. Thompson. There was no partition, and I could see she was young, blond, and trying to act tough. When I walked forward, I was so nervous I messed up and said, “Shut up or I’ll kill you!”

Ms. Thompson whispered something to Detective Gauldin and they asked me and number four, standing next to me, to repeat the process. This time I got it right. “Shut up or I’ll cut you!” I said my bit and then stepped back in line. It was like facing the firing squad. Please don’t pick me, I thought. I know they said she identified me from my photograph, but now that she saw me in person, I thought maybe she’d see I wasn’t the right guy. It would have been all over then.

Ms. Thompson wrote something down on a piece of paper and slipped it to Detective Gauldin. Gauldin pushed his chair back and brought it over to show to my attorney. I could feel my heart up in my throat. Phil looked at the piece of paper and dropped his head. I knew it then. She had picked me. My hands started sweating and my legs got real wobbly.

Ms. Thompson left the room with Gauldin, and in a little while, they brought in the second victim, Ms. Reynolds. They made us do it again for her. I was like a robot. Ms. Reynolds was a lot older than Ms. Thompson, and she wasn’t trying to be tough. She was crying and crying and getting hysterical. She wrote something on a piece of paper and detectives led her out of the room. Later on, Phil told me she picked out the guy standing next to me, number four, a college student who lived not too far from the Brookwood apartments who wasn’t a real suspect. He also told me we had trouble.

“You want to tell me again where you were on July twenty-eighth, and the early morning hours of the twenty- ninth?” Phil said.

I sighed, explaining that I’d mixed up my days.

“Ronald, it’s going to look like you lied.”

“I’m not lying. I didn’t do it.”

But it didn’t matter. I was a goner as long as Jennifer Thompson sat there pointing the finger at me. “Yeah, you’re innocent,” smirked the guards at the jail. “You and everyone else here, right, Cotton?” It was a big joke.

On August 28, I saw Jennifer Thompson again. I went before the court for a probable cause hearing, where they were trying to determine the severity of the charges and whether to turn it over to Superior Court. My attorney had requested bond reduction on the pending charges, but after Jennifer Thompson took the stand and recounted what happened to her, the judge increased the bond on each individual charge to a total of $450,000 and ruled the case would go to Superior Court.

I’ll never forget that judge spinning around in his chair — if looks could kill, I’d have been dead then. And maybe better off. With that bond, I was going to remain in Alamance County Jail in Graham until the trial. I turned twenty-three four days before Christmas inside that jail. My whole life was supposed to be ahead of me, but my life looked like it was already over.

The trial started in January. Every day, I’d go back and forth between the county jail and the big court house in Graham. In the courtroom, I sat and listened while Phil tried to argue that the woman had made a mistake. He told the judge that the jurors should know about the other woman who had been attacked that night but didn’t pick me out of the lineup, even though the police said it was the same guy. But the judge said no. The judge also said no to Phil’s request to put a memory expert in front of the jury, to testify about how you think you can see something, and be sure, but still be wrong. So it wasn’t a total surprise when Phil showed up at the county jail and asked me if I wanted to think about pleading out.

He stood outside the holding cell I was in. It was bigger than the regular cells, about ten by twelve, and painted kind of pink. The idea was that it helped with your attitude when you were going in and out of the courtroom.

“Ron, we’ve got to face the fact here that there’s a good chance you’ll get convicted,” he said. “I ran into the district attorney at lunch. Do you want me to see if we might be able to get a plea bargain?”

He looked out at me from under his dark brows and waited.

Despite the bars all around me, I was an innocent man. God knew it, and I knew it, and I would rather die incarcerated than admit to being the rapist they claimed I was. Besides, look what pleading guilty the last time to attempted rape as a juvenile did: Everyone threw it back in my face, and it was one of the main reasons Phil advised me not to take the stand. I told him I wanted to explain my side of things, that I had gotten my dates confused in the beginning when the police asked for my alibi. But Phil said the inconsistent alibi would only give the D.A. the opportunity to brand me as a liar.

“No,” I told him. “I’m not pleading guilty to something I didn’t do.”

“Okay, Ron,” Phil said. “Okay.”

He didn’t pressure me to go for a plea bargain the way my other attorney had, though I could see in his eyes it would have been a relief if I had.

Instead, we went on with the trial. Phil, always in a perfect suit and perfect tie, argued the best he could. I sat and listened, sometimes bringing my hand to my face; I’d rest my thumb on my chin and my index finger on my mouth, having to stay silent when everyone was just telling a pack of lies about me.

During the trial, I would steal a few glances at Jennifer Thompson, thinking, Why? Why are you doing this? She just stared back at me with hate. She rolled her eyes at me. The jurors, the DAs, the cops — all of them looked at me like I was something they wanted to spit at and stomp into the ground. In response, I adopted the guarded look I learned long ago when dealing with the authorities, when it seemed like they could do or say what ever they wanted, regardless. I knew I was goner: I just didn’t know how bad it was going to be.

On January 18, 1985, I was sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years. I stood there as the judge read my sentence. He called me one of the most dangerous men he had ever met; the district attorney said I was a “menace to society.” I could scarcely look at anyone, but I caught a glimpse of my mom and some of my sisters who were able to make it to court that day. They were stunned, like someone had just slapped them. I pinched my right arm as hard as I could. The crescent indent marks on my skin appeared just as the court officers moved in to take me away: This was a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from.

Excerpted from “Picking Cotton,” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo. Copyright (c) 2009. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press.