Misidentification led to the 11-year incarceration of an innocent man.
Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton told their unlikely story of friendship that stemmed from Thompson’s misidentification of Cotton. “Picking Cotton” was an event held on April 15 in Williams Auditorium as part of the Arts and Lectures Series.
In college, Thompson was raped at knife point by a man who broke into her apartment while she was sleeping.
“[Picking Cotton] opened up my eyes to realize crime can happen anywhere to anyone, at anytime,” Ferris sophomore graphic design major Dusti Manning said. “I think that hit home for people at Ferris because we think of it as such a safe community.”
During the rape, Thompson told herself, “you must stay calm, you must stay present.” Thompson explained how she tried to remember all of the features; his face, eyebrows and scars all in the hopes that she could properly identify him if she lived.
Thompson was able to run out of her door to a neighbor’s house, where she fainted and was sent to the emergency room.
“My body was the crime scene,” Thomson said. “All of the evidence was on me.”
While Thompson was at the hospital, she heard a woman down the hallway crying. She learned that she, too, had been raped. She was Thompson’s mother’s age.
“That’s the interesting thing about rapists; they’re not very picky about their victims,” Thompson said.
A lady told the police that a man named Ronald Cotton was wearing the exact same clothes Thompson had described and said he had been riding a bike near Thompson’s apartment. With this identification and Thompson’s careful remembrance, she thought she had properly identified and locked away her supposed rapist, Ronald Cotton, in the year 1984.
“[I thought] why is something like this happening to me?” Cotton said. “[After found guilty] I felt like I was in another world.”
Because DNA testing wouldn’t be developed for another ten or so years, Cotton stayed in prison with Thompson’s real rapist Bobby Pool. Bobby Pool was convicted of other rapes and sentenced to the same prison as Cotton. It wasn’t until Cotton had served 11 years that he would be proved innocent and free and Pool guilty of Thompson’s rape.
Thompson believes that she forgot the image of her real rapist after seeing the photograph of Cotton. Her memory was then clouded with this new image as “the rapist.”
Two years after Cotton’s release, he and Thompson met. After some time, they began their journey traveling around the country speaking about their experience.
Audience members asked Cotton and Thompson questions about their experience. One person asked Cotton if he has been able to forgive.
“It’s not good to hold grudges,” Cotton said. “They only take you down.”
Cotton said there was a point in his incarceration that he forgave and learned to move forward.
“The event talked about forgiveness and how you should open up your heart and forgive instead of harboring hate,” Manning said.
Thompson and Cotton have families of their own but have remained very close. They work to bring justice to those who are innocent in prison. Thompson works with State legislature to get the laws changed and the death penalty abolished.
Thompson and Cotton have written a book called “Picking Cotton.” More information can be found at www.pickingcottonbook.com.