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2012 Spring Issue 1 (April 6, 2012)

“Picking Cotton” activist speaks about working to help the wrongly convicted

April 6, 2012
By Jonathan Lin

Reporters who interviewed Jennifer Thompson in the early 2000s called her “a brave and courageous representative of victims” and a powerful voice of activism. But their descriptions do not tell the whole story of her journey to advocating prison reform, Thompson told last Friday’s Convocation audience.

As a 22-year-old college student, Thompson falsely identified Ronald Cotton as her rapist, sending him to prison for 11 years, before she and Cotton joined forces to write a book about their friendship and the flaws of the prison system.

“I was very happy not to do this,” Thompson said of her advocacy, describing the intense hatred and then shame she felt toward Cotton.

She recalled a BBC interview a decade earlier – before she met Cotton – in which she was asked to share her harrowing story of rape, justice and redemption. She flew out to Texas to speak with 12 men and women, all of whom were wrongly convicted and some even sentenced to the death penalty, all based on a single eyewitness account. At the time, Thompson recalled, she “was very supportive of the death penalty,” and was convinced that “in the United States, the system would not put those who were not guilty up for execution.”

But after hearing the individual stories of the 12 men and women in Texas, Thompson was overwhelmed and found herself completely unable to tell her story: “I buckled and began to cry. I knew there were things I couldn’t do in this world, and telling my story was one of them.”

In 1984 Thompson was a 22-year-old undergraduate heading towards a 4.0 GPA and a promising career. Then it all changed in the course of one night, when a man who broke into her apartment raped her at knifepoint. Recalling her determination to commit as much of him to memory as possible, Thompson described her efforts to switch on lights in order to more clearly sketch out her assailant’s face.

After a narrow escape, Thompson was convinced that her memory could reliably identify her rapist and put him behind bars for life. After a composite sketch, line-up identification,- and trial, Thompson’s testimony put Ronald Cotton behind bars. Angry and broken, the fragile Thompson began wishing for her rapist’s death.

But less than three years later, the nightmare returned, as a retrial was demanded in 1987: another prisoner inmate by the name of Bobby Poole had reportedly confessed to his fellow inmates that he had raped Thompson that night. Yet she consistently saw Cotton’s face as that of her assailant’s, and again he went back behind bars. Then, less than a decade later in 1995, she was asked to provide a blood sample for a DNA test, which confirmed that Bobby Poole was in fact her rapist.

Thompson recalled how a year later, the makers of a documentary contacted her with interest in covering her and Cotton’s story, marking the first attempt to hear her story. She refused to see Cotton, due to fear of vengeance. They did not meet until 1997, after more than a year of filming.

He did something “that I didn’t count on,” Thompson said. “He took my hand and said ‘I forgave you long ago.’”

At that moment, the two of them became close friends, and Thompson acknowledged how strange it was “that the man I had prayed for to die each night taught me to live again.”

Surprisingly, Thompson noted that if she and Cotton could go back and change anything that had happened, they would not. Feeling “honored to be representatives of the efforts to correct the judicial system,” Thompson emphasized the need to advocate for a “restorative justice,” as opposed to the punitive quality of the current system.

“We can make a choice: use experiences as a stepping stone to progress, or a tombstone to hold you back forever,” she said. 

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