Picking Cotton
California Lawyer

Picking Cotton

Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

June 2009

by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton
with Erin Torneo
St. Martin~s Press, 298 pages
$25.95, hardcover




Imagine your sense of guilt if you learned that your testimony had sent the wrong man to prison for rape.

Jennifer Thompson was in that situation. The North Carolina woman's mistake sent Ronald Cotton to prison. In 1984, the 22-year-old college student was raped at knifepoint by a man who broke into her apartment while she was sleeping. She identified Cotton as her assailant; he was convicted and spent more than eleven years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Two years after Cotton's conviction was overturned, Thompson's suffocating guilt caused her to finally seek him out. The resulting friendship between accuser and accused is what makes this jointly authored memoir fascinating.

The cleverly titled Picking Cotton is a message book, coauthored by nonfiction writer Erin Torneo and intended to put a human face on faulty eyewitness identifications. With Cotton's strength and compassion, Torneo could not have found a more compelling protagonist. During his incarceration, Cotton writes, he forced himself to let go of his anger. This was especially challenging, because he was locked up alongside the man he knew to be the real rapist. (That man, Bobby Poole, was eventually implicated by DNA evidence, and he died while in prison for a different rape.)

Thompson, meanwhile, writes about the disparate emotional experiences of being both victim and violator. After surviving a harrowing attack that shattered her world and profoundly altered her future, she hated Cotton with such intensity that she prayed for him to be raped and die in prison. This only increased her guilt when she learned Cotton was innocent of the crime.

Picking Cotton is careful to avoid blame. Rather, it presents a cautionary tale about well-intentioned people who make disastrous mistakes. This usually happens because of insufficient safeguards against eyewitness error, rather than evil motives on the part of police, prosecutors, judges, or jurors.

Because it is a memoir, Picking Cotton gives short shrift to the research on flawed eyewitness identification, which is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. That is unfortunate, because Thompson's identification of Cotton is a fascinating example of unconscious transference. During the rape, Thompson made a disciplined effort to memorize her assailant's face. However, her efforts to help police create a composite sketch contaminated her original memory. And when she selected Cotton's image from a photo lineup, that process further contaminated her memory, superimposing Cotton's face onto that of the rapist in her mind. Her memory distortion was reinforced in pretrial proceedings, so that by the time of the trial she was absolutely certain in her identification of Cotton. The young white woman was such a compelling witness that the jury deliberated only four hours before convicting the young black man.

The book presents few villains (other than the real rapist, a minor character). Instead, it features inspirational heroes?people who stepped up when they became aware of the injustice. These include the attorneys who took on Cotton's appeal pro bono, as well as a more surprising hero, the lead detective from the original investigation.

The detective, Michael Gauldin, was so troubled by the case that when he became chief of police in Burlington, North Carolina, he revolutionized lineup procedures in his department. Under his leadership, the Burlington police department became the first in the state (and a pioneer nationwide) to mandate sequential, double-blind lineups. These procedures reduce unintentional contamination in two ways: First, witnesses see suspects one at a time, rather than simultaneously, so there is less pressure to identify someone initially. Second, the lineup administrator does not know the suspect's identity, and so cannot provide witnesses with unwitting cues.

The appellate attorney heroes in the story include D. Thomas Lambeth Jr. of Burlington, who later went on to become a judge, and law professor Richard A. Rosen of the University of North Carolina?Chapel Hill School of Law. When Cotton's exoneration sparked a crusade for reform in North Carolina, Rosen founded an Innocence Project at his law school. Thanks in part to one of his former students, attorney Christine Mumma, in 2006 North Carolina became the first state to establish an official Innocence Inquiry Commission to investigate claims of innocence.

Cotton's story has been told before. A 1997 Frontline documentary on eyewitness identification, "What Jennifer Saw," featured both Cotton and Thompson. Indeed, it was that documentary that eventually brought the two together. They did not meet face-to-face during the filming, and at the end of the film Cotton asks why Thompson never sought him out to apologize. Thanks to that question, she did, spawning an unlikely friendship and a compelling narrative about the healing power of forgiveness.

Karen Franklin, PhD, is a forensic psychologist in El Cerrito. She writes about forensic psychology online at forensicpsychologist.blogspot.com.

Reader Comments

Mike - July 16, 2013
Today I watched a documentary about the wrongful justice Ronald Cotton suffered. Ronald is an amazing person, he is a statue of strength to every person out there and has shown the world that forgiveness and understanding are a far better weapon than hate, anger and revenge could ever be. I would love to meet this man as to me his is just as great a person as anyone whos lived. To me this man should be awarded the noble peace prize. If Ronald was to ever visit England he and his family would be more than welcome at my home and it would be an honour to have such an amazing person under my roof. Thank you Ronald for showing mankind the right way to react to someone whom made an awful mistake. If we could all learn to forgive this world would've a much happier place.

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