In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was raped in her apartment near Elon University. During the ordeal, she memorized everything she could about her rapist. At the police station later, she helped a sketch artist come up with a likeness. Faced with a picture lineup, she picked out a photo of Ronald Cotton. The police officer told her she had done well. During a physical lineup, she again picked out Ronald Cotton. Again, she was told she had done well.
She was 100 percent sure Ronald Cotton was her rapist. She had not one doubt.
Only she was wrong.
Eleven years after being convicted of raping Thompson, Cotton walked out of prison when DNA proved another man had done the crime. Thompson feared he’d find her and kill her for her mistake, but all Ronald Cotton wanted was an apology.
The two met at a church so that Thompson could offer what she could. They’ve been friends ever since. Together with a writer, they produced the book “Picking Cotton” (http://www.pickingcottonbook.com/). They travel the country, often together, and talk about their experience and the need for judicial reform. They want police to change how they do lineups. They want people to realize why eyewitnesses can be wrong. They want an end to the death penalty.
And Thompson wants people to know how Ronald Cotton taught her about the power of forgiveness.
Thompson recently spoke to an honors law and justice class at Broughton High School. It was one of the most gripping presentations I have ever seen.
Here are my notes about her talk. They are NOT verbatim.
My story begins before you were born, 1984, before we had cell phones. I was 22. I had made all kinds of mistakes, but by 22, I had found my place in life. My parents were proud of me. I was at Elon, when we were the Fighting Christians. They’re the Flying Phoenixes now.
So I’m at Elon College, 22 years old. I’m going into my senior year that fall. I’m trying to catch up in my life, so I was always taking summer school classes. I was dating a guy at UNC-CH who came from a good family. I was maintaining a 4.0 GPA. My grades were so good, I would oftentimes go to some of the open classrooms and tutor. I also worked two jobs. During the day, I would go to the women’s exercise facility and teach aerobics. In the evenings, I’d wait tables. I worked two jobs because I wanted to pay my own bills. I was an independent young woman. I wanted to live on my own. I wanted to make my parents proud. I was accomplishing all of these things. Then UNCG offered me a teaching position in exercise physiology. My adviser told me I’d graduate valedictorian, top of my class. I could see it in the distance. Wouldn’t Mom and Dad be proud?
That day, I played tennis with my boyfriend. I became overheated. That was before we had water bottles. I became very dehydrated. We decided we’d separate. I’d go to my apartment. He’d pick me up. I took a shower, and he picked me up. I could eat a ton of food like a man. Any man who dated me would take me to buffets. That’s exactly what happened that night. I overate. I overdosed, went into a food coma. I had a terrible headache. I told my boyfriend I had to go home. He was a gentleman. He gave me some aspirin, rubbed my back. I went to sleep. That’s the last thing I remember. That was about 9:30 p.m.. He left about 11.
At some point in the night, an attempted rape happened across the street. A man busted out her window. She saw an arm. She screamed, called the police. He ran. Where did he run? He ran to my apartment.
I was asleep. Around 3 o’clock in the morning, I felt something in the room with me. You know when you have dreams, and you wonder whether it’s really happening. Your scream is right here (she puts her hand on her throat). That’s what happened. I felt something in the room with me, and I didn’t know whether I was imagining it. I opened my eyes. I could hear his feet shuffling on the carpet. Your mind starts processing things in nanoseconds, when your brain is trying to process something incomprehensible. I said, “Who’s there?” Someone jumped on my bed, put a knife to my throat and said, “Shut up, or I’ll kill you.”
I’m thinking, this has to be a joke, right? This has to be some bad frat joke, someone’s going to say, “Ha ha. Just kidding.” But this is someone I didn’t know. An African-American male. This is someone I don’t know. I said, “You can have everything i own. Take my car. You can have my wallet. I promise I won’t call the police.” He said, “I don’t want your money.” And that’s when I knew what was going to happen.
And you think, are you going to die? Is this the last second you have on this earth? Is it going to hurt? Is it going to be fast and won’t I feel it? Will it be slow? What will my mom and dad say when they have to come to the hospital and identify my body? I could picture my dad in the morgue, standing over my body saying, “Yes, that’s Jennifer. That’s my daughter.”
I wanted to tell my dad one more time that I love him. I wanted to see the sun come up one more time. I didn’t want this to be the last thing I ever saw. I made two decisions at that moment: that I will not die here and that, if I live, I will not forget what you look like. I will know everything about you. I will remember everything about you. If I live, you will burn in hell.
Over the 20 minutes he raped me and assaulted me, I would look into his eyes. I would look at his eyebrows. I would memorize the shape of his chin, look for a scar, a missing tooth, anything that he couldn’t change later.
Pencil thin mustache. He was thin. His lips weren’t large. I could remember he began to talk to me, he’d tell me things like, “I know your name is Jennifer. I know you can’t see because you don’t have your glasses on.”
He’d sat in my living room. He’d read my postcards. He invaded my space. If I’d had a gun that night, I could have shot him between the eyes and smiled.
I told him I had a fear of knives. I told him if he’d take it outside and drop it on my car so that I could hear it, I’ll let you back in.
I tried to figure out how tall he was. How much he weighed. 5’10, 5’11? 170-180 pounds? That was important. They’d ask me. Was he pigeon-toed? Everything was important. Everything I remembered meant I was going to live.
He didn’t drop the knife. He pretended to. I told him I had to go to the bathroom. I turned the light on. He told me to turn it off, but it was a moment of light. I saw him.
I thought about how he’d said he came through the kitchen. Maybe I could get out the back door. I said, “Can I get a drink of water?” He said, “Yeah, make me a drink, and we’ll have a party.” I reached down and turned on the radio. The light was on his profile, and for another brief second I could look at him.
I went into the kitchen and began to make noise, with the ice cubes, the cabinets opening and shutting. Then I opened the door and I ran. I pulled the blanket tight and I ran. I had nothing on but that blanket, and I didn’t know where to go. I looked over my right shoulder, and he was coming after me. I took off through the neighborhood, and I ran. I thought, if I can get to the light, maybe someone will see me, maybe someone driving by. I need to get under the light. Then I saw a carport light. I jumped the fence, banged on the backdoor. I said, “Please, please, open the door. I’ve been raped.” The man screamed, and his wife came running. She was a professor from Elon. She recognized me, said, “Dear God, I see her every day on campus. Let her in!”
I was taken to the hospital. I learn of this thing called a rape kit. My body was now a crime scene. The evidence was on me, in me. It had to be collected and put in little bags. I remember thinking, “Please, just take my skin off. I never want to feel my skin again.” It was degrading as they plucked and swabbed everything to collect what was left behind.
I remember the detective coming into the room and standing there to make sure it was collected appropriately. I heard a woman down the hall crying, this all-is-lost cry. I said, “Officer, the woman down the hall. What happened to her? Is she OK?” He said, “No, she’s just been raped.” “Was it the same man who raped me?” He said, “Yes.”
In less than an hour, he had raped someone else. She was my mom’s age, had a daughter my age. He knew his victims well. And I hated him. I could taste it in my throat. I wanted him to die.
When the officer said, “Can you give me a description of this man?” I said, “Oh, yes. I paid attention.” It was so clear I had gotten a good look at this man. Can I work with an artist? Yes, and I want to. We have to get this person off the streets. He’s an animal. Animals have to be stopped.
They showed it to me. “Does this look like the man who raped you?” And it ran in the newspapers. Calls came through. One person said, “This looks like a guy I know, this guy by the name of Ronald Cotton. He works not far from the complex. And I saw him about 3 a.m. on a bicycle, wearing khaki fatigue pants.”
That was the rapist. That was the rapist.
Three days after I was raped, I was called to the police station. “We’re going to show you six photographs. I want you to take your time. Don’t feel compelled to choose anyone. But if you see him, pick up the picture and initial the back of it.” I thought, “I can do this. I’m smart. I’m an A student. I can do this.” I picked up the photo and said, “This is him.” I initialed it. They said, “Good job.”
The second victim could not make an ID. She had a flashlight in her face. I had to do this for me and for her and every woman who had ever been raped. It was important.
They said, “Jennifer, we’re going to do a lineup. If you see him, write his number on a piece of paper.” I’ve seen cop shows. I know what a physical lineup is. But no, the police station was being renovated. I was taken to a school room. The only thing between me and the lineup was a table, no door, nothing. If I didn’t get this right, he’s walking. If he walks, he’s gonna kill me. I have to get this right.
“It’s No. 5.” They said, “Good job. That’s who you picked out in the photograph.” I thought, “My God, I did it. I’m a good witness.”
And now we’re going to go to trial. This would be the biggest final exam of my life. I wanted to study everything I could about this animal. I wanted to know him. I had a right to know him.
I only wished at this point in my life there’d been a death penalty. I would have watched him die. And I would have smiled. I hated him. I hated his family. I hated the public defender. I hated everybody. How do you defend an animal? How do you defend a rapist? How do you do that and go home at the end of the day and kiss your children goodnight? How do you swallow food? How do you do it knowing they’re going to walk?
Two weeks of my life, I sat in this courtroom. I watched him lie. I watched his family lie. “That wasn’t him. He was asleep on the couch. No, man, we were watching television. I can tell you where Ronald Cotton was.”
Liars. Liars. Of course they’re going to lie for their son, their brother. Who’s going to believe them? Two days I had to go on the stand and tell every vile, disgusting things he did to me in front of my mom and dad. It was awful.
The jury came back with the only logical thing. He was guilty. He received life or 54 years. And I was happy. I was happy. We went back to prosecutor’s office and had champagne. We toasted the system. That’s the way it works. The bad people go to prison and rot and die there. And I get the justice. And now you get the pat on the head and they say, “Now you can move on.”
How do you put that behind you? And how do you move forward? I wasn’t going to marry the perfect guy. He couldn’t handle it. I wasn’t going to graduate summa cum laude. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t so anything except take massive, massive amounts of drugs. I wanted to be numb. I didn’t want to be attached to my body. I wanted numb. If I could be numb, then I could just get to the next part.
I couldn’t feel. Until I almost died. I woke up one morning and thought, “If I die, he wins.” I’m too mean for that. You’re not winning. I climbed outa that hole. I graduated. I packed my Toyota, broke up with my boyfriend. Nine months later, I got a brain again. Met a new man. Fell in love.
Then the DA calls me. Guess what? The appellate court of North Carolina overturned the decision. Ronald claims he’s innocent and that he found the guy. He claims the guy who raped you is in prison with him.
The second victim remembered now. It was Ronald Cotton who raped her. You wish every day you couldn’t remember that, but you can’t can’t forget it. It’s burned in your brain, on your heart, in your soul. She was willing to testify. It was Ronald Cotton.
Bobby Poole. They bring in this guy who confessed to a cellmate that he allegedly committed the rapes. The judge asks him. “No, man. Wasn’t me.”
Ronald was retried, but this time he was found guilty of two first-degree rapes. This time, Ronald Cotton could receive two life sentences. And again, we would have champagne and toast the system. It worked for me. It worked for her.
I got married in 1988, got pregnant in 1989, fall of 1990, gave birth to triplets, two girls and a boy.
That was my award from God. This was a gift he gave to me, these three amazingly beautiful babies. He trusted me to raise them after all I endured, this was what I got, these three beautiful babies. It gave me such pleasure to know that Ronald Cotton would never get this, never fall in love, never get married. He was going to die there. It was what he deserved.
At night when I’d put those babies to bed, I’d make sure they were breathing, breathing, dry and fed. The world is a perfect place. I’d go to bed and pray, “While you’re at it, do me this favor. How bout you have Ronald Cotton die tonight? But on his way to hell, I want him to know what that night was like for me.”
I prayed this prayer every night for the next five years. That’s OK. I’m a good person, and he’s a bad person. And you can pray like that if you’re a good person You can.
In spring of 1995, a detective came to my house. He said, “Jennifer, Ronald Cotton is still claiming his innocence. We know he’s not. We know we got the right guy. The problem is, he wants a DNA test run. The state doesn’t say he’s allowed to have a DNA test run, but if he is, your blood sample out of the rape kit has deteriorated. We’d have to get another.” I said, “Gentlemen, I’m busy. I have 5-year-old triplets. I don’t have time to go back to trial. I’ve seen his face in my nightmares for 11 years. I’m going down to that lab, and you’re going to get my blood and you’re going to find that man’s a rapist.”
So I did. Three months later, they came back and said, “Jennifer, that DNA does not belong to Ronald Cotton. It’s Bobby Poole’s.”
What do you say? Right? What’s the appropriate response to that? Oh, my God. Eleven years. I was 22 when this happened. I’m 33. That’s a third of his life that’s gone. It’s gone. Thank you. Thanks for coming. That’s all I could muster up to say. I couldn’t breathe. I started to suffocate. I was paralyzed. I mean, I was paralyzed with guilt and shame. What did I do? I embarrassed the police department. I humiliated the DA’s office. I’ve taken away 11 years of Ronald Cotton’s life. His family? They’ve missed their son, their brother. But here’s the big emotion I felt: fear. Abject fear. He’s walking out of prison, June 30, 1995. He’s going to hunt me down. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to hurt my children. He’s going to take something from me. I would.
I went to the school. I said, please, you have to watch the kids. Have eyes on them every single second. I’m afraid. Every minute of my life, I’m afraid for the next two years.
The summer of 1996, I get a visit from a man from Boston, a producer for “Frontline.” “I’d like to do this documentary on the fallibility of human memory. Would you tell your story? Into a video camera? So I can record it and play it on television so everyone in the United States can watch you and hate you?” I’d be an idiot. No, I’m not going to do that. Are you crazy? Why would I do that?
“Well, Ronald’s going to tell his story.”
That’s great. If he tells his story, who’s going to tell mine? “I’ll do it if I’m not in the same room or the same city, because he’s going to kill me.”
They’d come to my house and say, “We were with Ronald yesterday. Wow, what a nice guy. The nicest guy. So forgiving. So gentle. Super, super guy.”
I thought, “You’re all in on this, trying to trick me. You’re going to lure me to a room, Ronald will be there, and he’s gonna kill me. I’m not falling for that.”
I didn’t meet Ronald. When “What Jennifer saw” aired, the last thing I heard Ronald say was, “I know she’s sorry, but I need to hear her say it.” The last thing I said was, “I still see his face in my nightmares.” Why can’t I take the wrong face out of my brain and put in the right face? The least I can do for this man is apologize. The least I can do is say I’m sorry.
So in April, in a small church, I waited. I went to the pastor and said, “I don’t know what to say to this guy. I don’t know what to call him. Mr. Cotton? Ronald? Ron?” He said, “When the moment arrives, you’re just going to know.” I guess that’s what they call faith. I sure didn’t believe it.
Before I could blink, this beautiful 6-foot-4 man was standing in front of me. I couldn’t get out of my chair. I started sobbing. I looked at him and said, “If I spent every second of every hour of every day telling you how sorry I am, could you ever find it in your heart to forgive me?” He took my hand and said, “Jennifer, I forgave you years ago. I want you to be happy. I want to be happy. I want you to have a good life. I want to have a good life.”
For the next two hours, we sat and talked about what those years were like, what they were like in prison, what it was like to be a victim of rape, what it was like to both be victims of Bobby Poole, to be victims of a system that so often fails.
At the end of those two hours, I ended up in his arms. We stood in the parking lot hugging and hugging and promised each other, we lived it together, struggled and survived it. Nothing in the world was going to take us apart. That was in 1997.
We’ve helped abolish the death penalty in Connecticut, in New Jersey. Ronald Cotton that day became my friend. Ronald Cotton that day showed me that anger, hate and joy don’t coexist in the same human spirit. You can’t be a loving person and hate. You can’t be a joyful person and be angry. You can’t be a peaceful person and be violent. How that man I hoped would die would teach me this ...how he could show me through his own leadership how to forgive Bobby Poole. It was about taking back my life, taking back the power and control he took from me that night. You did not win. You didn’t not get the last word. You did not destroy me.
He showed me now not to be a victim and to be a survivor.
He was at my wedding. The song we danced to? “Lean on me.”
He had a massive stroke a year and a half ago.
Questions from high schoolers:
Q: Did you ever forgive Bobby Poole?
A: By watching Ronald be so kind, loving, merciful, I wanted to be like him. So I didn’t want to turn around and transplant hate to another person. I was a mother now. I had a son. I didn’t want him to hate. I didn’t want to teach my children to hate. The only way to teach them was by my own example.
Bobby Poole died. When he confessed in 1995 he had done it, we knew he had brain cancer. He died in March 1998. To continue hating him wasn’t going to add any value to my life .
Q: What can you tell us about contaminated memory?
The night I was raped, I got a good look at my attacker. I hadn’t had drugs or alcohol. I saw him up close for extended periods of time. Sketches are notoriously awful. I wish they’d do away with them. But mine was pretty good.
They have this Identi-Kit. You go through the tabs. Look at the mustaches now. You start picking out parts of the face. And you’re done with it. They say, “Doesn’t this look like the guy who raped you?” Yes, it looks LIKE him, but it’s not him. So now my brain's contaminated. It’s overlaid now with a composite sketch.
It’s like when you take the SAT, relative judgment. There are five answers. You discount three answers, narrow to two, come up with the best one ...
It’s subconscious. You don’t know you’re doing it. So I pick Ronald’s picture. Are you sure? What’s the last visual my brain is scanning? It’s the composite sketch. It’s smushed together like peanut butter and jelly. Once I pick out the picture and get the “good job” from police, I get confirmation. False certainty. “Good job, Jennifer. Way to go.” I was so glad I got it right.
Seven days later, they put seven guys in front of me. The last thing my brain can remember is Ronald Cotton. He was the only person who was the same in both. My mind says, “I’ve seen that guy before.” “Good job, Jennifer.” It cements it in my mind.
When I go to trial? What’s in my brain? Ronald Cotton. Three years later, I’m in front of the man who really raped me, and I don’t have one single second where I feel that.
I talk to police officers as much as I can. They’re the first one going to you saying tell me what you saw. It’s amazing how malleable and prone to suggestion our brains are. There are more than 300 who have been exonerated by DNA in America. And it’s not because the victim or witness is lying or a bad person. Our brains cannot photograph and videotape what we see.
You could not sit in a police department with an Identi-Kit and come up with a picture of your mom. We cannot and do not compartmentalize faces. When I say I memorize your nose, you see the whole face.
And your mom’s nose is not in that Identi-Kit. They only have 100 to choose from. There are 120 of you in here. Her nose isn’t in there. Neither are her lips or her eyebrows. You can come up with a likeness, and as soon as you come up with a likeness, bam, your memory’s changed.
Guys, it’s still happening today. This is not something that happens in 1984. This is still happening today. If you think it can’t be you, you’re wrong. Because it can.
We’ve been asked, if you could go back and undo what happened to you, would you do it? We’ve both said no. We’ve been through hell and back, but it’s made us both who we are today. And who I am today is who I want to be. And where he is today is where he wants to be.
It’s not to say that it’s good that bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen. Not one of you is going to get through the world without being betrayed, disappointed, hurt. Maybe something happens in college. Bad things are going to happen in our lives. It’s part of being a human being. You’re in control with what you do with it. I’m not the only rape victim in the world. One-third of the women in this room will be a victim of sexual violence. It’s pervasive. It is silent. Yeah, and I’ll tell you right now, rape is a man’s problem. It’s not a female problem. We’re the victims. It’s a male problem. Guys, challenge your buddies to be better. You guys going off to college, you’re going to see stuff and hear stuff. Challenge your buddies.
Q: Is there anything you wish you would have done differently?
A: There’s nothing I could have done. My doors were locked. I was in bed at 3 a.m., which is where you’re supposed to be. He cut my phone line. The police officer who came to me at the hospital asked, “Have you ever been trained with how to deal with sexual assault?” He said, “You did everything we tell a woman to do.”
I think I did everything right.
Q: If you had a firearm, do you think you would have shot him?
A: If I’d had a gun that night, it would not have been under my pillow. It would have been in my dresser. I couldn’t have gotten up during my rape. What would have happened is he would have found it and used it against me.
Q: Would you have been able to forgive him as much as he forgave you?
A: Ronald would tell you he spent the first two years really, really angry. We’ve got exhonorees coming out after 38 years. Imagine. Somebody going in at 18, and you walk out and you’re 50. And they almost all come out forgiving. They realize the only way to make it through prison is you can’t be enraged. Ronald often says they can take your body, but they can’t take your soul and spirit. That belongs to you. Could I have done it? Doubtful. I’m not as good as Ron. I’m just not. He’s a much better person than I am.
Q: Do you still have trust issues?
A: Yes. It took me until 49 to find the right man.
Q: Are you sorry you did drugs?
A: Don’t do cocaine, guys. Just don’t. There’s only one ending to drugs, and it’s not good. So just don’t do it. Play Frisbee.
Q: What did you think of the SBI scandal?
A: The system is designed to work for the prosecutor. When something goes to the SBI, the results need to be favorable to the prosecution, regardless of whether it’s not true.
Thank God we have discovery now. At least we have laws now where you can’t hide and throw away evidence and change it and manipulate it. It’s egregious. It’s disgusting. It makes me angry. Don’t we all just want to know the truth? However that works out? The truth.
The system is going to work for Duke lacrosse players. It just is. It’s going to work for Duke lacrosse players because they’re Caucasian and wealthy and they go to Duke.
Q: Did you forgive your parents for not being what you needed?
A: The resentment was huge. I struggled to find a way to understand forgiveness. If I was going to forgive Bobby Poole, I had to figure out how to forgive my dad, my brothers. Nobody wanted to know. They still don’t want to know. I have two brothers who still have never talked to me about this, not about the book, not about what I do. Nothing.
My father was so precious. He said, “Jennifer, you probably have done more good than anybody I’ve ever known. You probably saved somebody’s life.”
My mother would like to think she supports me. They were born in 1933 and 1937. They didn’t talk about sexual violence. They didn’t talk about sex. So they’re not going to talk about sexual violence. You go in to see someone in the hospital and they say, “Whatever you do, don’t talk about the cancer. Keep it light.” Well, sometimes the patient wants to talk about the caner, and their lives.
Just be present. Just be present in their space and talk about whatever they need to talk about. My parents, they didn’t know how to do that. I did have to forgive them. You can’t be mad at someone for not understanding how to do something they didn’t know how to do.
The majority of males have desensitized toward rape. It’s culturally ... I love this age group. I listen to your music, I see your television shows and video games, and the stuff, it’s almost all sexualized, dominance and control and having power. And you are desensitized to it. I think a lot of males almost find it to be alluring, and it’s violence. It’s violence. It’s not rare to your generation. Listen to songs of the 70s I was dancing to, but I do think what happens is it becomes sexy as opposed to violent.