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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!
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.
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.
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.