Photo of hands sticking out of jail cellIn 1982, Jennifer Thompson was a college student living alone in an off campus apartment in Burlington, North Carolina. One night, while she was sleeping, an intruder entered her apartment. He held her at knife point and violently raped her. During the incident, Jennifer studied the face, voice and other identifying features of her assailant, so she could help identify him if she survived. Ultimately, she was able to escape. She vowed to do all she could to make sure that the person who did this to her was put away for a very long time.
When she was asked to identify her assailant in a police lineup, Jennifer identified Ronald (Ron) Cotton, who had been arrested as a “person of interest.” She again identified Ron at his trial and, despite his protest that he was innocent, he was found guilty and received a sentence of life in prison plus 50 years.While Ron was in prison, a new inmate arrived named Bobby Poole. Bobby, who looked startlingly like Ron, was serving consecutive life sentences for multiple brutal rapes. Ron asked Bobby where he was from and Bobby said he was from Burlington. Ron asked Bobby if he had raped Jennifer and Bobby denied it. But later, another inmate told Ron that Bobby had confessed to raping Jennifer. On that basis, Ronald was able to appeal and receive a new trial. At the second trial, with both Ron and Bobby in the courtroom, Jennifer again identified Ron as her assailant. Ron was once again convicted and this time he was sentenced to prison for two life sentences.While Ron was in prison the second time, he was watching the O.J. Simpson trial when he heard about DNA testing for the first time. At Ron’s request, his lawyer asked that the evidence in Jennifer’s case be retested and compared to the DNA samples of both Ron and Bobby Poole. The tests revealed that it was Bobby’s DNA that was the match and Ron was released from prison after serving 11 years.

The realization that she had made a horrible mistake about the identity of her assailant turned Jennifer’s life upside down. She experienced a suffocating, debilitating shame. After some time passed, Jennifer asked to meet Ron Cotton. He agreed and they met at a local church. When she first saw him, she couldn’t move and began immediately to cry uncontrollably. She said to him, “Ron, if I spent every second of every hour for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it would never come close to how my heart feels. I am so sorry.” Ron leaned down and gently took her hands. He said, “I forgive you. I do not want you to look over your shoulder. I just want us to be happy and move on in life.”

Jennifer said that the minute he forgave her, physically her heart started to heal. She thought, “This is what grace and mercy is all about. This is what they teach you in church, that none of us ever get. Here was this man that I used to hate. I prayed for 11 years that he would die, that he would be raped in prison and someone would kill him.” Now she was the one who was asking for forgiveness and receiving it from this amazing man who didn’t seem to harbor resentment against her.

As a result of her meeting with Ron, Jennifer was finally able to begin to forgive herself for the effect that her mistaken identity had on Ron’s life. She let go of the shame, remorse, and self-judgment she had carried since Ron was exonerated. She felt lighter and free to move on with her life.

Now their lives are entwined in an unexpected way. Ron and Jennifer have become close friends and their families spend time together. They have co-authored a book, Picking Cotton, a Memoir About Injustice and Redemption. They also speak to law enforcement agencies about the role that false memory plays in convictions and they lobby to change state laws about how eye witnesses are interviewed by the justice system. Both of them have expressed how their lives have forever changed as a result of their poignant experience.

*Based on news stories and interviews. (See endnotes below.)

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This is just one of the inspirational stories in the book,  The Heroic Path of Self-Forgiveness: Change Your Story, Change Your Life

Endnotes:

  1. Mike Celizic, “She Sent Him to Jail for Rape; Now They’re Friends,” Today.com, March 10, 2009, accessed March 2, 2011.
  2. Ben Loeterman, “What Jennifer Saw: Cotton’s Wrongful Conviction,” PBS Frontline Show # 1508, Feb. 25, 1997.
  3. Scot [sic] Abrahamson and Will Robinson, “A Decade Behind Bars for a Rape he Didn’t Commit,” Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern Law, accessed on July 16, 2011, .
  4. CBS News Online, 60 Minute Story, Eyewitness Testimony, March 8, 2009, accessed on YouTube.com Part 1 and Part 2.