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Book Review: Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo

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In July 1984, North Carolina college student Jennifer Thompson endured a brutal sexual assault. What happened that night shattered not only the victim's life, but the lives of several people and their families. Mistaken identity, DNA, the power of memory, and race all figure into Picking Cotton, the incredible account of Thompson's mistakenly identifying Ronald Cotton as her attacker, and his 11-year fight to clear his name.

A joint memoir (written with Erin Torneo), the book simply lets Thompson and Cotton narrate their own stories. Part one belongs to Thompson, who describes her attack in excruciating detail. While being raped at knifepoint, Thompson willed herself to memorize her attacker's facial features. Eventually she managed to escape, later confidently telling police that she would be able to identify the intruder in a lineup. When she viewed the suspects, she immediately recognized Ronald Cotton, a local resident, as the perpetrator. Burning with rage, she testified against him at trial, then attempted to move on with her life. She reveals the disintegration of her relationship with her then-boyfriend, her family's complex reaction to her rape, and her brief experimentation with drugs. Eventually she married and had three children, and began to heal.

Part two offers Cotton's perspective, which is the most wrenching part of Picking Cotton. In a conversational tone, Cotton explains his poor background and youthful indiscretions, then his horror at realizing that he was going to jail for a crime he did not commit. His description of jail life is shocking, detailing that while he tried to keep a low profile, he still constantly looked over his shoulder, ready to defend himself against attacks from fellow inmates. Incredibly, he met Thompson's real attacker — fellow prisoner Bobby Poole, a criminal with a history of sexual assault. Cotton noticed his strong resemblance to Poole, and immediately contacted his lawyer, asking for a new trial. After a new trial was granted on appeal, Cotton amazingly was convicted again, this time for two rapes — Thompson's and another woman's, who was attacked the same night.

When Cotton returned to prison, he fantasized about killing Poole for ruining his life but decided that he has to make the most of his imprisoned life: “Put a man in a cage with beasts and throw away the key, and it's usually not very long before the man is a beast himself,” he writes. All seemed lost until the O.J. Simpson trial, when DNA evidence became part of the public consciousness. Once again Cotton contacted lawyers, stating that he would submit to a DNA test, knowing that none of his genetic material would be found at either crime scene. Ultimately, this evidence exonerated Cotton's name, and he walked out of jail a free man after 11 long years.

The last part alternates between Thompson's and Cotton's views, with Thompson's shock and guilt over identifying the wrong person, and Cotton's attempts to rebuild his life. Finally the two decided to meet in order to provide some sense of closure. Their recollections of their first meeting are emotional, with Thompson apologizing to Cotton. Cotton instantly forgave her, and she ponders the meaning of that word: “Forgiveness is tricky. People think when you forgive someone, you excuse what he did. That's not what it is. It's about power and letting go.” Before meeting with Cotton, she explains, she did not understand “what forgiveness was, nor how powerful it could be.”

Those statements on forgiveness summarize the remainder of the book. After their initial meeting, Thompson and Cotton began making joint media appearances to bring attention to cases of witness mis-identification. In the process, the two became improbable friends; perhaps the most amazing example is that after a phone conversation, they both end the call by telling each other “I love you.” Meanwhile, Poole finally confessed to the rapes, and his DNA matched that found at the crime scenes. Before he could be brought to trial, however, he died from cancer while still in prison.

Indeed, Picking Cotton tells an amazing story. More than that, it brings up so many social issues that it would be impossible to thoroughly address them all in one book: rape victims' rights, race, prejudice, class, the role of prisons in society, judicial reform, and, of course, witness identification. Even more, it demonstrates the danger in presuming guilt before innocence, particularly when relying solely on a victim's memory. Anyone serving on a jury should read this book, as it emphasizes the importance of keeping an open mind and considering all evidence before making a decision.

The memoir format allows Thompson and Cotton to narrate their own stories, making the reader feel as though eavesdropping on a conversation. While their viewpoints are essential to the story, it would have been even more educational to hear another perspective, namely that of the lead detective. A recent 60 Minutes program profiling the book delved into the complexity of memory, with the detective explaining the pitfalls of lineups and over-reliance on witness testimony. The show illustrated how easy it is to misidentify a suspect merely by unintentional suggestion and other factors. While Thompson mentions these issues toward the end of Picking Cotton, it would have been even more useful to devote more attention to the topic. Perhaps this issue warrants its own book, a sequel that could focus on the case from a judicial perspective.

Picking Cotton simply but dramatically inspires conversations addressing the faults of the criminal justice system, and illustrates the power of forgiveness. For more information on the book — and the case — visit its official site.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Joann Johnson

    This is an amazing story. I saw the CBS 60 Minutes interviews a couple weeks ago but didn’t realize a book is out. It sounds like a worthwhile read.