A young woman’s life was traumatized by a terrible crime. A young man’s life was ruined by false accusation and conviction. Picking Cotton is the memoir of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, a story of injustice, penitence and, ultimately, forgiveness.

            Jennifer Thompson was a straight-A student at Elon University in Burlington, North Carolina. She had her life all planned out: maintain straight A’s, graduate with a 4.0 GPA, and marry her boyfriend, Paul. Little did she know that would all change when, in the early hours of July 29th, 1984, she woke to a stranger in her room, who proceeded to brutally rape her, with a knife at her throat. Jennifer stayed as calm as possible, trying to remember as many details about her assailant as she could, until she managed to escape. When presented with a handful of suspects that the police department had identified, she picked out the one she recognized the best: Ronald Cotton, who already had a less-than-desirable record with the police.

            When Cotton was told of the charges, he went to the police station to clear his name, but instead he was arrested. He was found guilty on January 18th, 1985 and sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years, on charges of first-degree breaking and entering and first-degree sexual assault.

            Keeping great determination and faith in God, Cotton underwent an eleven-year ordeal, being transferred from prison to prison, sometimes living in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. In prison he met a fellow inmate, incarcerated for the same crimes. His name was Bobby Poole, and he even resembled Cotton in appearance. Cotton requested that he and Poole go back to court to appeal his innocence. Unfortunately, Jennifer, along with another woman who was raped the same night, again chose Cotton as her rapist and he was sentenced to two life sentences plus fifty-four years.

            As Cotton languished in prison, Jennifer remained tormented by the image of her attacker. She was eventually able to settle down and marry a man named Vinny. But right as she began to get comfortable she was informed Cotton had requested a DNA test. Still confident that he was guilty, she agreed. A few weeks later Cotton was freed, after eleven long years in prison; it was Bobby Poole’s DNA found in her rape kit, and Poole had confessed to the crimes. Jennifer was devastated; however, she decided she wanted to meet Cotton.

            Ronald Cotton agreed to meet Jennifer and, miraculously, forgave her. Since then, they’ve formed an unlikely friendship and have started travelling across the country advocating actual innocence investigation, hoping to prevent the justice system from repeating the mistakes of their case.

Robert Kobet, Student author