In 1984 a college student woke up in her Burlington, North Carolina, apartment to find a young black man in her bed who intended to rape her. Because Jennifer Thompson was about half the size of the man she faced, and was already pinned down by his weight by the time she awoke, she recognized that any physical defense she presented would only worsen her situation. Jennifer, however, was not prepared to give up that easily. As the man began raping her she made a conscious effort to study his face and everything about him so that she would be able to work as closely as possible with the police on his capture. She even talked him into interrupting the rape long enough for her to escape the apartment and run for help.
Jennifer's attention to detail resulted in the well-executed police artist sketch that would lead to the quick arrest of Ronald Cotton, a local man, as the man who raped her and another woman on the same night.
Cotton was not at all worried when his family told him the Burlington Police Department wanted to speak with him in connection with the two rapes. He knew he had a rock-solid alibi for the night in question, so he drove himself to the police station in order to prove that he had nothing to do with either crime. Unfortunately for Cotton, he got his dates mixed up, making his supposed alibi worthless, and he was charged with both rapes.
The trial jury recognized Cotton's resemblance to the police sketch and considered Thompson to be an exceptional witness because of her decision to concentrate on her assailant even as the assault against her was happening. Her strong trial testimony, during which she appeared to be absolutely certain of Cotton's guilt, was all the jury needed to convict Cotton of her rape, and they quickly did just that.
Eleven years later, in 1995, DNA testing would prove that Ronald Cotton had nothing to do with Jennifer Thompson's rape and he was freed from prison, a dream that Cotton had all but given up on ever seeing happen. Ronald Cotton, now in his early thirties and lucky to have survived more than a decade in prison, was back with his family hoping to start a new life for himself.
Tragic as all of this is, it is far from being a unique story because, sadly, this kind of thing happens more than anyone in law enforcement would care to admit. Thousands of people have been imprisoned with no more evidence against them than the word of their accuser. Honest mistakes are made, lies are purposely told, and justice is not always blind.
No, the truly remarkable part of this story is what happened next.
Jennifer Thompson, married and the mother of triplets by the time of Cotton's release, feared that he would take his revenge by harming her or her children. Two years passed before the two of them finally came face-to-face but, when it did happen, both their lives were changed forever. Cotton, an extremely compassionate man, surprised Thompson by readily offering his forgiveness in their first conversation - and that would be the beginning of a powerful, loving friendship between the two and their families that is still going strong.
Today Cotton and Thompson work together to bring attention to other inmates around the country who have been imprisoned under circumstances similar to those that placed Ronald Cotton in jeopardy of spending his whole life in a jail cell. Much good has come from the awful circumstances that have linked forever the lives of these two people, and Thompson and Cotton have both thanked God that Cotton is the one she chose that day in the Burlington police station if she was destined to get it wrong.
Read "Picking Cotton" to get the rest of the story - there's a lot more.