At this Gala, she expressed her determination to make sure a guilty criminal was securely behind bars. On that terrible night in July of 1984 when an assailant broke into her apartment and raped her, she vowed to do two things; survive this attack and study his face so closely that there would be no mistaking who he was when it came time to identify him. After she fullfilled these tasks, she was assured by the authorities that the man she singled out in a physical lineup was the same man she had also chosen in an earlier photo lineup. She felt proud that she “did it right” and for being proactive about her safety as well as for other potential victims.
Jennifer Thompson tried to move on. She got married, had children and tried as best she could to focus on her new life despite persistent recurring nightmares about the attack. It was always Ronald Cotton’s face, the man she had singled out as her assailant, who was depicted in these horrible nightmares. Then one day, she received a phone call from the detective who had worked on the case. He told her that there was going to be a new evidentiary hearing for Cotton. Rumor had it that another man Cotton had actually met in the same prison had confessed to committing the crime against her. His name was Bobby Poole. Jennifer was to attend this hearing. She became extremely angered at the nerve of the authorities to question her judgment. “How dare they?” was her response. In tow with how she felt about Cotton and despite the new evidence presented in court, Jennifer was still convinced that is was Cotton who had assaulted her. As a result, he was given an even longer sentence the second time around and was sent back to prison. Jennifer’s unrelenting hate for this man triggered incessant thoughts that he himself be raped and then killed. And the nightmares continued…
Time was not a friend to Jennifer in distancing her from this terrible event. Emotional healing evaded her. Instead, before things would get better, they would get much worse. Seven years after the hearing, a big news story surfaced as the trial of OJ Simpson was going on. Talk of a new technology called DNA was making news. Ronald Cotton heard about it and contacted the authorities to have his own DNA tested. Bingo! This DNA test ruled him out and pointed the finger at the very man who had earlier confessed-Bobby Poole! Ronald Cotton was exonerated and released. And when Jennifer found out he was being released, she was shocked and overwhelmed with “suffocating and debilitating shame” at the thought of her mistake. She had sent an innocent man to prison…for eleven years!
A new fear engulfed her. Cotton would harbor anger towards her for taking away his freedom for so many years. Jennifer eventually summoned the nerve to ask if Ronald would meet with her at a nearby church. He agreed. And she was able to express her sorrow for what she had put him through. She begged for forgiveness. Ronald told her that he had forgiven her many years ago. They became good friends.
Together, Jennifer and Ronald wrote a book about their experience called, Picking Cotton. They now travel around the country and share their story, capitalizing on the flaws of witness identification. They are involved in the legal reform of police procedures regarding how victims ID an assailant to ensure that these mistakes do not happen in the future. Watch a 15-min. clip of their story here:
In her speech, Jennifer stated the healing process began only after Ronald had expressed his forgiveness of her. She still has recurring nightmares but the assailant is now faceless. Her newfound friendship with Ronald and her ability to use this experience as a teaching tool has turned her life around in a positive way. Way to go Jennifer and Ronald! And thank you for your remarkable and courageous inspiration!