Subtitled “Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption,” PICKING COTTON covers the dramatic intersection of the lives of two people who couldn’t be more different.
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a petite, blonde North Carolina college student, planning to graduate with a 4.0 GPA and then marry her fiance. Ronald Cotton was a big African-American high school dropout who had had some skirmishes with the law but who was working and trying to find his way. Their worlds changed irrevocably on a summer night in 1984, when Jennifer was raped in her apartment by a black intruder. Ronald had the misfortune of looking enough like her attacker that he was ultimately convicted of her rape. He served nearly 11 years in prison, staunchly maintaining his innocence, until DNA evidence exonerated him shortly after the OJ Simpson trials. PICKING COTTON is their story.
Journalist Erin Torneo has shaped their words into alternating first-person narratives. Jennifer tells us her early story first: the terror and shame of being raped, the damage it inflicted on her relationship with her parents and her fiance, her determination despite her fear to make the perpetrator pay for his crime. She recounts in detail how the police department first helped her make a composite drawing. After that, she was shown a group of pictures and picked the one that looked most like her drawing. When she then chose the person whose photo she had picked from a lineup, the detectives praised her. By then, she was sure that the man she identified was the one who raped her.
Another woman had been raped the same night, and the police suspected they were both victims of the same man. She was initially unable to identify her attacker. Nevertheless, the case went to trial, and Jennifer’s identification of Ronald in the courtroom helped seal his fate. “It was the happiest day I had in the past six months. I had done my job well, and Ronald Cotton would rot in prison,” Jennifer says.
Ronald’s story is the other side of an altogether different coin. He goes down to the police station on his own to “straighten this out,” after learning that the police visited both his home and his white girlfriend’s apartment, looking for him. He was certain his innocence would come out, but he got his dates mixed up when giving his alibi. “What if I had worn a different shirt? What if I hadn’t gotten my dates mixed up? What if I refused to talk until I had a lawyer present? I would have a lot of time to think about my situation: That was the last time I walked in anywhere as a free man for the next eleven years.”
Crucially, Ronald turns to the Bible as well as the gym during his prison time, and over time he finds the strength to forgive himself as well as the woman who put him there. He also meets the man who was guilty of both the rapes for which he had been sentenced and keeps up a correspondence with the legal counsel who represented him, hoping for another chance to prove his innocence.
But the truly amazing story happens when Ronald is finally released. Jennifer is a married mother by then, and she is devastated by the knowledge that she helped put away an innocent man. How Jennifer and Ronald meet and their subsequent friendship is a testament to the nobility of the human spirit.
Torneo has done an excellent job weaving these stories together, and she avoids the pitfall of sugarcoating or sensationalizing. Jennifer and Ronald are honest about their flaws and come to terms with them, transcending race, class and gender. We learn a great deal about the justice system and the dawn of DNA testing, but we learn more about the human capacity for forgiveness. PICKING COTTON is interesting, compelling and ultimately heartwarming.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on March 3, 2009