152017Jan

Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo

It was a hot summer night in Burlington, N.C., and Elon College student Jennifer Thompson was asleep in her apartment. What Thompson didn’t know was that this night would change her life forever. A man lurked outside her window, who then broke in, startling her awake, and brutally raped her by knife point. But Thompson was not the only one whose life would change forever.

Ronald Cotton was a young black man who resembled the suspect sketch and had a prior offense on his record. Detectives with the Burlington Police Department were convinced they had the right man, especially after Thompson picked him out of a line-up. But were other suspects explored? Cotton proclaimed his innocence and cooperated with the police from the beginning. Was he lying or was this a case of mistaken identity?

After spending 11 years in prison, and considerable time and energy with trials and lawyers, DNA testing finally exonerated Ronald Cotton. Now a free man, another chapter would begin for him when Thompson, distraught by the news that her faulty eyewitness testimony had convicted the wrong man, reached out and called Cotton. They agreed to meet, and with an emotion-filled exchange, Cotton forgave Thompson.

“Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption” is a harrowing yet hopeful true story voiced through the perspectives of both Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, giving its readers a deeper sense of the authors’ struggles. Its unique format effectively illustrates the journey of what would become an incredible friendship, one that continues to challenge inequality and unfairness in the justice system.

Cotton’s and Thompson’s stories have significance beyond personal accounts; they also highlight important social justice issues. The considerable reliance on eyewitness accounts played a major role in the wrongful conviction of Ronald Cotton. Reliable DNA evidence was not yet available at the time; however, procedures involving the photo identification and suspect line-up were critically flawed.

“Picking Cotton” also brings to the forefront the traumatic experience of sexual assault and the compelling need to educate and learn about the difficulties facing sexual assault survivors. Jennifer Thompson’s depiction of the rape and its aftermath emphasize the emotional, psychological and physical effects not only on herself, but also on her relationships with loved ones.

“Picking Cotton” is a powerful book that demonstrates how forgiveness and understanding can create a path towards personal healing and an awareness of greater social issues.

Katie DeVriese is a reference assistant at May Memorial Library. Contact her at kdevriese@alamancelibraries.org or (336) 229-3588.

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