This is an ongoing series telling the stories of wrongful convictions in North America. To read more of these stories, please click here. If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at email@example.com. See my two previous series on the American Justice System, The Ultimate Price and Reasonable Doubt.
When Jennifer Thompson-Cannino woke to a man in her room, she vowed to do everything she could to save herself and get this man caught. When he began to assault her, she studied his face and swore she would remember every detail. She picked out every distinction and memorized it. Every pore on his face, every hair on his head. Her terror, her anger and her sadness fueled her determination and when she finally escaped the man’s clutches through her own quick thinking, the first thing she did was run to a neighbour’s and call the police so she could relay every minute detail she’d just absorbed. The perpetrator, meanwhile, left her home to rape another of Jennifer’s neighbours.
A short time later, Jennifer was interviewed by police. She gave them every detail she’d burned in her brain. A composite sketch was drawn up of the man who had attacked her, and she nodded in approval. That was definitely him.
It took no time before Jennifer was asked to pick him out of a pile of photos. She studied each face, though she didn’t have to. She saw him immediately, and she was sure it was him. When asked by detectives how certain she was, she responded, “100% sure.” A physical line-up followed and she picked out the same man. Again, Thompson-Cannino was, “100% sure.”
Ronald Cotton was convicted of both the sexual assault of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and that of her neighbour later the same night. He was sentenced to life plus fifty-four years.
In prison, Cotton met a man named Bobby Poole. Bobby stood out to Cotton because the two men looked similar. So similar, in fact, that prison staff and other inmates often mixed the two up. Having maintained his innocence since day one, Cotton wondered if Poole was the real rapist. When he asked Poole, Pooled denied having anything to do with either crime.
However, a short time later, a mutual friend of Cotton and Poole’s confided in Ronald that Bobby had confessed to both sexual assaults while they had been alone in their cell one night.
Armed with this information, Cotton sought to overturn his convictions unsuccessfully several times. Jennifer was brought in to look at the two men, and swore up and down that Ronald Cotton was the man who had raped her.
It wasn’t until he paid attention to the OJ Simpson trial, that it dawned on Cotton to request the preserved rape kit be tested and compared to his own DNA. In 1995, his request to test the DNA evidence was granted.
The results came back. The DNA matched Bobby Poole, not Ronald Cotton. After eleven years in prison, Ronald Cotton was set free to get his life back on track.
Soon after, he met Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. She sobbed and apologized. He cried and told her he had forgiven her a long time ago. Quickly, the two became best friends, which they still are to this day.
Now, Jennifer and Ronald tour the country giving talks about the failures of eyewitness testimony and how even the most certain witnesses are just as likely to be wrong as they are right. Together, they wrote a book called Picking Cotton, which is worth every moment it takes to read. One of the most unsettling stories of wrongful convictions leaves you unsure you can trust your own memory, and has a very real, very literal Happily Ever After.
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If you have a story of someone wrongfully convicted, or you were yourself and want to talk about it, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org