This story is about two people, two victims of crime. Two people that suffered from circumstance and circumstantial evidence. Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson are these two people. This story is about the way circumstantial evidence convicts and the way DNA exonerates.
Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson are living the ultimate human story. It is one of error, recognizing it and being redeemed. Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were living in Piedmont North Carolina during the crime. Anyone who has lived there in the past twenty years knows their names, but probably not their entire story.
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was 22 when a man broke into her house and raped her. As the man assaulted her, she studied and memorized his face, as well as his voice, and everything she could about him. Jennifer’s intention was to survive, and when the assault was over, she wanted to put him in prison for the rest of his life for what he did to her.
After Jennifer was treated for her injuries she helped the police draw a composite sketch of the man who raped her.
The Police Department of Alamance County had never seen a victim so composed, so determined and so sure. Just a few hours after her horrifying ordeal, after the emotionless doctor swabbed her vagina for semen samples at the hospital, Jennifer sat down at the police station with Detective Mike Gauldin. “The first comment I remember her making was that, “I’m going to get this guy that did this to me.” She said, “I took the time to look at him. I will be able to identify him if I’m given an opportunity,” Gauldin remembered her saying (Hansen, 2001). She began combing through photos, trying to help come up with a composite of her rapist. The sketch went out, and tips started pouring in. One of those tips was about Ronald Cotton. Three days after the rape, Detective Gauldin called Jennifer in to the police station to do a photo lineup.
Detective Gauldin lay six photos down on the table. The Detective said that Jennifer did not immediately identify a photo from the photo lineup. She took her time and studied each picture carefully. “I can remember almost feeling like I was at an SAT test. You know, where you start narrowing down your choices. You can discount A and B,” Jennifer said. She picked out Ronald Cotton’s photo. Cotton heard the news from his mother’s boyfriend. He told me, “Ron, the police are looking for you.” And I said, “For what?” And he told me, “For rape.” And I said, “I haven’t committed such a crime like that,” Cotton said (Finkelstein, 2009). Ronald Cotton gave Detective Gauldin a very detailed account of where he was, and who he was with that night. As it turned out the statement that Ronald Cotton had given to the Detective was false. He later realized that he had gotten his weekends mixed up. By this point it was too late.
His honest mistake gave them more reason to think that he was lying, and if he was lying about his whereabouts on the night of the rape, what else was he lying about? The day he went back to the police station to clear his name, was August 1, 1984. He did not get the chance. He was arrested. Ronald Cotton was not going to get to leave. He was getting locked up, and days later he was put in a physical lineup. “I’m number five,” Cotton remembered. “I was very scared, nervous. I was so nervous, I was trembling. I felt my body just shaking” (Finkelstein, 2009). A week later, Jennifer sat across a table from six men that were holding numbered cards. She picked No. 5. And with the words, “That’s my rapist, Detective Gauldin,” she changed another’s existence as well as her own forever.
On August 1, 1984, Ronald Cotton was arrested for the rape that had been committed against Jennifer Thompson. In a week-long trial, the jury heard about Cotton’s faulty alibi, his clothing that matched Thompson description, and a piece of foam found on her floor that seemed to come from one of his shoes. And most powerful, they had heard from Jennifer Thompson. In court, when she was asked if she recognized her rapist, she had named Ronald Cotton. “She called my name, pointed a finger. And that’s all, that’s all it takes, it seemed like,” Cotton said, “It felt like someone pushing a knife through me” (Hansen, 2001). Her testimony was extremely powerful. Even Ronald Cotton could feel the jury sympathize with her. He himself even sympathized for her. In silent terror, he watched as the system labeled him a rapist. He was only 22 years old, and the world that he had foreseen and dreamed about, all his plans were over now for a crime he did not commit.
The Prosecutor’s evidence at trial was all circumstantial evidence; however they had an eyewitness, Jennifer Thompson. The Defense Team had Ronald Cotton’s alibi, which was supported by family members. They tried to allow the jury to hear the evidence about the second rape victim that night, but the jury was not allowed to hear that evidence, or to hear that the second victim failed to pick Cotton out of photos that the police had showed to her, as well as the police lineup. The prosecution based its case on several points and used circumstantial evidence to obtain their conviction. These included; photo identification by one of the victims, police lineup identification made by one of the victims, a flashlight in Cotton’s home resembled the one used by the assailant and rubber from Cotton’s tennis shoe was consistent with rubber found at one of the crime scenes. “It took the jury just 40 minutes to reach a verdict: guilty on all counts.
“He was sentenced to life and 50 years. That was when Jennifer Thompson realized the justice system worked. Ronald Cotton was handcuffed, shackled, and taken to North Carolina’s Central Prison. He was just 22 years old. “You know they say grown men don’t cry, but it’s a lie you know. I grabbed my pillow many times and hugged it, wishing I was hugging my mom, my dad, sister, brother. Wish it didn’t have to be this way,” said Ronald Cotton (Finkelstein, 2009). On Jan. 17, 1985, Ronald Cotton was sentenced to life in prison. Ronald Cotton was convicted by a jury of his peers of one count of rape and one count of burglary. As Ronald Cotton was lead off to prison he said, “I say the truth will come to light and the Lord knows I am an innocent man. Someday, somewhere, the truth is going to come out in my case.” While he was in prison, Cotton spent his days and nights writing letters to lawyers, newspapers, and to anyone who would listen to him.
He would do anything to get a new trial. Ronald Cotton tried to believe what his father kept telling him – which was, “that someday justice would prevail”. Then it happened. One day as he watched a new inmate being brought in, he had a strange feeling come over him. He wanted to know more about him, who he was, where he came from, so Cotton approached him. “I said, ‘Excuse me. You look familiar. Where are you from?” He told Cotton, “I’m from Burlington.” Cotton told him, “I am too.” I told him that, “You kind of resembling the drawing of a suspect in a crime in which I’m falsely imprisoned for. Did you commit this crime?” And he told me, “no, I did not,” remembers Cotton (Finkelstein, 2009). Cotton understood immediately why he felt the way he did upon seeing the man for the first time.
He thought of the composite drawing when he saw the inmate. The inmate’s name was Bobby Poole, and he was serving consecutive life sentences for a series of brutal rapes. He also started working in the prison kitchen too. “The stewards were calling me Poole instead of Cotton,” Cotton said. People were constantly mistaking the two men for each other. During many of the years he spent in prison, Cotton actually knew who the real rapist was. The two bore a striking physical resemblance to one another, and to the police sketch of Thompson’s attacker. While in prison a fellow inmate heard Poole going around bragging to other inmates that Cotton was doing some of his time for a rape that he had committed. Eventually an inmate told Cotton that he’d heard Bobby Poole admit to raping Jennifer Thompson and the other woman that night. Ronald Cotton was in prison for this rape, a rape that he was convicted of, and the rape that sentenced him to life plus fifty years, a rape that he did not commit.
Ronald Cotton was full of rage. He was angry. Cotton hated Poole. He decided to make a blade out of a piece of metal. He was going to kill him. Cotton told his dad of his plans and Cotton’s father begged him not to. “Put your faith in God,” his father said. “If you kill Bobby Poole, then you really do belong behind these bars” (Finkelstein, 2009).So Cotton eventually threw his blade away and his plans to kill Bobby Poole. Cotton’s attorney filed an appeal. On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned Cotton’s 1985 conviction because the second victim had picked another man out of the lineup. The trial court had not allowed this evidence to be heard by the jury. An appeals court had ruled in Cotton’s favor stating that evidence relating to the second victim should have been allowed in the first trial. Ronald Cotton had won himself a new trial, and his heart filled with hope. The new trial began in November 1987.
Ronald Cotton was retried, this time for both rapes and burglaries, because the second victim had decided that now Cotton was her assailant. The witnesses would get a look at Bobby Poole, who was subpoenaed by Cotton’s lawyer. They would hear the evidence from prison informants, about him admitting to these two crimes. The informants would tell their compelling stories about the rapes that they had heard Poole so proudly boast about, the story that the public did not know. They would tell the story that the real rapist told them. Things the rapist would only have known. Cotton was excited, even confident, the trial began to look as though it was going his way. Finally, Cotton thought, he would be set free, he would be exonerated, and finally everyone was going to see the truth. He was not the rapist. However he had forgotten the power of Jennifer Thompson. Back on the stand, Jennifer Thompson was as confident as ever. She looked directly at Poole and then she looked directly at Cotton.
He was fifteen feet away from her and he could still feel the hatred in her heart that she had for him. Ronald Cotton is the man who raped me, she told the jury. It was not Bobby Poole. The Prosecution and defense asked her, Are you sure? And confidently she said, Yes, I’m sure. The second victim was less convincing, but she also pointed to him, too. Cotton’s lawyers called Bobby Poole to the stand with Thompson sitting right there. It was the moment Cotton had been hoping for. They tried to trigger her memory, by allowing her to see him up close, by allowing her to hear his voice. It was Cottons last hope, but nothing; she was too convinced that Cotton had raped her. So they tried to get him to break, but he did not. He denied the rapes and with that he sealed Ronald Cotton’s fate. An innocent man was living inside the shell of a convicted rapist. It was all over for Cotton. Cotton knew it; he knew that he would be convicted. The court fell silent as Ronald Cotton was sentenced again.
He was convicted of both rapes and two counts of burglary. This time an Alamance County Superior Court sentenced Cotton to two life sentences plus fifty-four years. Ronald Cotton was convicted twice by eyewitness testimony. Seven more years went by, and then everyone in Central Prison was riveted by a big news story: the trial of O.J. Simpson. Cotton’s big break came in 1995 while he was watching the O.J. Simpson trial on television. “I would get my radio and put my earplugs in, and go outside, and sit in a corner,” Cotton said. There, he’d listen to the trial. He was intrigued by something he’d never heard of: DNA. The Attorneys and investigators kept talking about DNA evidence, something he had never heard of before. DNA was still in its infancy when he received his convictions and it was not used in his trial. He got an idea and he contacted his new attorneys. In 1994, the chief appellate defender had requested that two new lawyers take over Cotton’s defense.
Richard Rosen, a professor at the University Of North Carolina School Of Law, agreed to represent Cotton. He wrote to his new attorney, law professor Rich Rosen. Rosen warned him that there probably wasn’t any evidence left to test, and if there was, DNA could cut both ways. “Understand if the DNA comes back and shows that you did this crime, whatever legal issues we have don’t make any bit of difference. You’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison,” Rosen said. Cotton told him “to go with it” (Finkelstein, 2009). The lawyers filed a motion for appropriate relief on the grounds of inadequate appeal counsel. The lawyers also filed a motion for DNA testing that Cotton had been so adamant on getting. DNA testing was granted in October 1994. Packed away on the shelves of the Burlington Police Department was 11-year-old evidence from the two rapes that night.
In the spring of 1995, the Burlington Police Department turned over all evidence that contained the assailant’s semen for DNA testing. Luckily, Burlington Police Detective Gauldin had preserved the biological material in the case, although there was no legal requirement for it to be maintained. Inside one of the rape kits was a fragment of a single sperm with viable DNA. The samples from one of the victim’s was too deteriorated to be conclusive, but the samples from the other victim’s vaginal swab and underwear were subjected to PCR based DNA testing. They were able to recover one tiny sample of sperm from the rape kit that had been used to treat Jennifer Thompson 11 years earlier.
The DNA sample showed no match to Cotton (Celizic, 2009). At the defense’s request, the results were sent to the State Bureau of Investigation’s DNA database, containing the DNA patterns of convicted violent felons in the North Carolina prison system. The state’s database showed a match with the convict who had earlier confessed to the crime. There was enough DNA in the sample to prove Cotton was innocent and Poole was guilty. Then, under questioning by Detective Gauldin, Poole confessed to both rapes. In May 1995 when the official DNA results were reported, the prosecution joined Rosen in a motion to drop all charges. Judge McLelland granted the motion. Cotton was officially cleared of all charges on June 30, 1995 and he was released from prison in July 1995. And just like that, Cotton was a free man. Cotton received a gubernatorial pardon based on innocence the following month. In July 1995, the governor of North Carolina officially pardoned Cotton. Cotton had served 10.5 years of his sentence.
Cotton began the difficult task of beginning a new life. When he was first released from prison 17 years ago, Cotton’s first job was with the DNA Company that conducted the tests that exonerated him. He now works for a company that makes insulation. He’s been married for 15 years and has a 14-year-old daughter. They live in a house paid for with restitution money from the state of North Carolina: $10,000 for each of the 11 years he spent in prison. Jennifer Thompson has also moved on. She is married and has three children. She and Cotton talk often. “He is an amazing human being. He has been a real good teacher for me.” He has helped me so much. Ron has taught me about forgiveness, and healing, and faith” (Hansen, 2001). Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson are now friends.
In fact, they’ve written a book together: “Picking Cotton: A Memoir of Injustice and Redemption.” They sometimes travel together giving talks about the ways memory can deceive us, and they are working to change the way police conduct photo lineups (Connors, et al, 1998). They are also a testament to the power of the human spirit. When DNA evidence ultimately proved that another man committed the rape and Cotton was freed, Thompson was consumed by guilt and shame. However, Cotton talks about in the book that they wrote together, that he had long since forgiven her. “I couldn’t carry on serving my time in the prison system holding grudges and thinking about retaliating against a person that made an honest mistake. I had to proceed on in life regardless,” he told Vieira (Hansen, 2001). When I found out that I was going to be released from prison I was shocked. I almost did not believe it. “It was like a dream come true. I couldn’t believe it,” Cotton told Vieira.
“The warden of the penitentiary called me in his office and told me I was going home tomorrow. I told him, “Please don’t pull my leg, it’s already long enough.” But it was true. I finally went home to be with my family and loved ones. The day I had prayed so hard for had finally come and it was not just in my dreams (Hansen, 2001). To jurors the point of the finger identifying a perpetrator is damaging evidence and mistakes can be made. However, now there is one type of evidence that’s even more persuasive: DNA.
There have been 235 people exonerated by DNA in this country and now a stunning pattern has emerged: more than three quarters of them were sent to prison at least in part because an eyewitness pointed a finger – an eyewitness we now know was wrong (Torneo, 2009). Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and the man she mistakenly put in prison, Ronald Cotton is a tale about pain and redemption — and the tricks that memory can play on people with the best of intentions. “This can happen to anyone. And hopefully it does not happen to them,” Cotton told Vieira (Hansen, 2001). One of the most amazing things that have come out of this injustice is the most unlikely of friendships. He was sentenced to life in prison for a rape he did not commit by a woman who he now calls his friend. The two of them are truly inspiring, and the two of them were both victims.
Celizic, M. (2009, March 10). She sent him to jail for rape; now they’re friends. In NBCNEWS.com. Retrieved November 27, 2012, from http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/29613178/ns/today-today_news/t/she-sent-him-jail-rape-now-theyre-friends/ Connors, E., Lundregan, T., Miller, N., & McEwen, T. (1998). Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial. Institute for Psychological Therapies. 10. Retrieved November 5, 2012, from http://www.iptforensics.com/journal/volume10/j10_3_6_8.htm Finkelstein, S. (2009, July 12). Eyewitness: How Accurate Is Visual Memory? In CBSNEWS. Retrieved November 28, 2012, from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/03/06/60minutes/main4848039_page6.shtml?tag=contentMain;contentBody Hansen, M. (2001). Forensic Science: Scoping out eyewitness Ids (Master’s thesis). April Retrieved November 5, 2012, from http://nersp.osg.ufl.edu/~malavet/evidence/notes/thompson_cotton.htm Thompson-Cannino, J., Cotton, R., & Torneo, E. (2009). Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press. Retrieved November 5, 2012, from http://www.pickingcottonbook.com/splash.html