‘Picking Cotton’: An unlikely Journey From Injustice to Redemption

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On the night of July 29,1984 two lives were forever changed. Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, a 22 year old college student would become the victim of a brutal rape. While Ronald Cotton, the accused, would be later scheduled to serve two consecutive life sentences. In their own words, they share the riveting accounts from “Picking Cotton” a joint memoir about their unlikely road from injustice to redemption. The lessons learned about the power of memory and perception—and the driving force that would become their lives mission.

 

 

 Jennifer Thompson-Cannino

 

Link2Us: Who was Jennifer Thompson prior to the 
events of July 28, 1984?

Jennifer: I was a college student going into my senior 
year. I studied very hard and was going to graduate with 
a 4.0 GPA. I was dating a man at UNC-Chapel Hill and 
we were talking about marriage. I worked two jobs and 
loved living by myself. Life was great and I knew where 
I was going.

Link2Us: Could you tell us about the events that took 
place that night?

Jennifer: I had gone to bed early on July 28th and some-
time around 3 a.m. on July 29th I heard and felt a presence 
in my bedroom. I looked to the left side of my bed and saw 
someone’s head at the side of my mattress. I screamed 
and a man jumped on the bed, straddled me, put a knife 
to my throat and a gloved hand over my mouth and told 
me to shut up or he would kill me. I told him he could have 
my car, my money, and anything I owned, just please don’t 
hurt me and I promised I would not call the police. He told 
me that he did not want my money and at that moment, 
I knew what was going to happen. I did not know if he 
would stab me, cut me, beat me, but I knew that if there 
was a way to survive I would find it. I made myself stay 
very present so that I could attempt to remember his 
face so that later if I got away, I could make sure he 
went to prison forever.

Link2Us: How did you finally get away?

Jennifer: I told him that I was afraid of the knife and 
if he would take it out the door and drop it on my car 
hood he could then come back in. This was my attempt to 
get him off me hoping that he would do as I asked and 
I could then lock the doors and call the police. He did not 
leave the apartment, but pretended to drop the knive out 
the door. When he grabbed my arm, I asked if I could 
use the bathroom to give me time to think. I remembered 
then, that he told me that he had come through the back 
door so I figured that I needed to get to the kitchen. When 
I came out of the bathroom, I told him that I needed a 
drink of water and he told me to make him a Seagrams. 
I then went to the kitchen, turned the light on and began 
to make noise with water, ice cubes, the cabinet doors 
and drawers, knowing that it would create distance and 
space–and then I opened the door and ran.

 

 
Ronald Cotton

Link2Us: How did you learn about the crimes that took 
place on the night of July 28, 1984?



Ronald: I learned about the crimes from the local newspaper following the rapes in the community.

Link2Us: Why did you, as a 21 year old African American, 
with a prior juvenile record immediately rush to the 
police station that night?

Ronald: I was trying to clear things up knowing that I 
was innocent of the crimes.
KL: Walk us though the steps of interrogation 
by the detectives at the police station. Did you think 
that it was just a misunderstanding and that you 
would go home that night?
Ronald: The detectives asked me of my whereabouts 
the night of July 29th and I  accidentally got my nights 
confused and told them where I was on the 27th. They 
told me that they knew I was the man and that I thought 
I was Mr. Big stuff going around screwing white women. 
They took turns asking me over and over about my 
whereabouts, and I kept telling them that I did not know 
what they were talking about. They had the wrong man. 
I thought they would realize that it was a misunderstanding 
but I also knew that if the police wanted you, they 
would get you.

Link2Us: Why did you refuse the right to have an attorney present?

Ronald: I just wanted to get this over with and go home! I really believed the police would be honest and fair.

 

Jennifer


Link2Us: As you went through the identification process what made 
you so certain that Ronald Cotton was the perpetrator?

Jennifer: A series of events lead to my contaminated memory.
It began with a composite sketch that subconsciously altered
my memory. If you did a photo lineup, and the rapist was of
course not in the lineup, you would then pick the next best face. 
By the time I went to the physical lineup, I was not looking for 
the actual face of the attacker but the last visual I had, which 
was a photo of Ronald Cotton. When January 1985 came along, 
Ronald had now become the rapist.

Link2Us: And later in a re-trial when you came face to face with 
the actual perpetrator, how is it possible that you did not 
recognize him?

Jennifer: Because that is how memory often fails us. I had now transferred the actual face with the face that I had come to think 
of as the rapist.

 

Ronald

Link2Us: Your problems doubled in 1988: What series of events 
took place during your new trial?

Ronald: There had been a second rape that night in 1984. The 
first trial had only been for Jennifer’s rape but now we were trying both cases and the second victim now said that she remembered 
it had been me who had raped her. This time I was convicted 
for both rapes and received two life sentences.

Link2Us: Who was Bobby Leon Poole?  What series of events 
lead up to being face to face with him?

Ronald: Bobby Leon Poole was a serial rapist from the 
Burlington area. I saw him 94 days after I went into prison. 
Another inmate told me after a fight that Poole confessed to 
him that he committed the crime that I was serving time for. 
He looked just like the composite sketch and even the guards 
in prison would get us confused.

 

Jennifer


Link2Us: What was your initial reaction and thought when DNA 
testing proved that Ronald Cotton was innocent?

Jennifer: It was horrific. The knowledge of what had happened
caused me to feel suffocating guilt. Nothing I could do or say 
would give Ronald back his lost years.

 

Ronald


Link2Us: What role did your faith play through this whole ordeal?

Ronald: I trusted in the Lord. I trusted that he would never leave 
me and that he would not put anything on me that I could not bear. 
I had faith that the truth would come to light.

Link2Us: What are some of the things that you will never forget 
about your court room experience and the injustice that 
took place?

Ronald: I will never forget the way people stared at me and 
looks that they gave. If looks could kill I would be dead.

Link2Us: What important life lessons did you learn from 
this experience?

Ronald: I learned to never take your freedom for granted!!!

 

Jennifer


Link2Us: How did you come to meet Ronald after his release. 
Where did you meet, what was the meeting like? And what 
did you fear most?

Jennifer: In the spring of 1997, a PBS film entitled “What Jennifer 
Saw” aired. It was a documentary about the fallibility of eyewitness
ID. After hearing myself say that I knew Ronald was an innocent 
man but I still saw his face in my nightmares, I knew that I had 
to see him and try to apologize to him. I did not expect him to 
forgive me but I had to tell him how very sorry I was. Although 
my mistake had not been malicious, the result was still the same.

 

Ronald

Link2Us: Was an apology from Jennifer important?

Ronald: Jennifer apologizing was the closure I needed to know 
that she knew I was not the man who hurt her.

Link2Us: You and Jennifer have co-authored Picking Cotton 
and have done many interviews and speaking engagements. 
What is your relationship like with Jennifer, these days?

Ronald: We are the best of friends.

Link2Us: Where does this impenetrable spirit of forgiveness 
come from?

Ronald: My spirit of forgiveness comes straight from God.

Link2Us: What specific role did DNA testing play in proving 
your innocence?

Ronald: It was the tool that set me free. If not for DNA, I would 
still be in prison.

Link2Us: Could you please give our readers some insight into 
what impacted you most about prison life?

Ronald: I learned that you have to be strong. They can lock
up your body but never your mind. I also learned to live, forgive
land let go of the rest.

 

Jennifer


Link2Us: What important life lessons did you learn in the process?

Jennifer: I learned that one person can make a difference. 
Each of us is required to stand up and do what’s right, not 
what is easiest.

Link2Us: What’s the overall goal of this campaign—tours, 
interviews, and the book?

Jennifer: Our goal is to educate the judicial system and the 
general public about the systemic problems that need to be 
studied and reformed. We try to tell our story, share our journey 
and have the listener leave with the desire to use their voice 
for change.

Link2Us: This unfortunate ordeal and terrible flaw in our judicial system produced two victims, yourself and Ronald Cotton. 
In your opinion, what type of reform needs to occur to help 
fix the problem?

Jennifer: Mandatory best practices in the collection and 
presentation of photo and physical lineups, audio/video taping 
of all confession and interrogations needs to become the norm. 
And if there’s a claim of innocence, there should be mandatory 
post conviction DNA testing. Believe it or not, there are still 
states that are randomly destroying rape kits and biological 
evidence. And when we get this wrong, the guilty person is 
left on the streets to commit further violence. The community 
must demand these changes from their own elected officials 
and police departments. It all really comes down to 
policy reform.

 
Katie McCreary-Lee

 

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