Today we continue with our Moms on the Move series where we are focusing on Triad moms who made a resolution for a life change. Today we are featuring, Jennifer, whose life was changed dramatically without her consent. Twenty six years later, Jennifer has made a resolution to help others, to accept forgiveness, and to give people a second chance …
Twenty six years ago, Jennifer was a college student in Burlington. A man broke into her apartment while she was sleeping, raped her at knife point and left her emotionally scarred for life. During this assault, Jennifer made a decision to look into the face of this man and visually record everything about him. She vowed to do everything in her power to find this monster afterward and make sure he spent the rest of his life behind bars.
Over the next twenty four hours she became instrumental in helping the police define what this beast looked like. The composite sketch ran in the newspaper and within days, they had a suspect. After a photo lineup and a physical lineup, Jennifer was able to pick him out. Ronald Cotton would be held until trial. Jennifer felt relief knowing that this monster would not be able to damage any one else, as he had done to her.
In January of 1985, court was in session. Jennifer explains that, “Two weeks were spent in the court room having to listen to lies upon lies about how Ronald was innocent. My anger and hate were huge, I could taste it in the back of my throat. After forty five minutes, the jury came to only conclusion that was reasonable, and that was Ronald Cotton was guilty and would be sentenced to life. We celebrated at the District Attorney’s office with champagne, toasting the judicial system. I was the victim, I should receive justice. He was a rapist and should be punished forever. I only wished that there was a death penalty for rape so I could be there and watch him die.”
By the summer of 1995, Jennifer had been able to continue on with her life. She was married and was the proud mother of five-year-old triplets. On a random afternoon, the Chief of Police in Burlington and the Assistant District Attorney came to see her. They explained that Ronald Cotton was seeking a DNA test. Jennifer says, “My reaction was mixed. On one hand, I did not have time for this game. I knew who had raped me. I saw his face in my nightmares every night for the last eleven years. It all but consumed me. But on the other hand, I wanted to put this to rest so I never had to go through it again.”
In June the results came back and Jennifer discovered that she was wrong. Ronald Cotton was innocent. On June 30th, 1995, Ronald walked out of prison a free man. Imagine the joy, relief, and freedom felt by Ronald, but imagine the depression and guilt that came over Jennifer once again. She knew that over four thousand days of Ronald’s life were gone, and there was nothing she could do to give those days back to him or his family.
Jennifer soon learned that Bobby Poole was her true attacker. Ironically, Ronald Cotton had served eleven years in prison and Bobby Poole was serving time for other crimes at some of the same facilities where Ronald was placed. Ronald knew who Bobby Poole was, and knew in his heart that he was serving time for a crime that Bobby committed.
After two years, Jennifer asked to meet Ronald Cotton. She wanted to tell him how sorry she was and ask for forgiveness. Ronald granted her this request, met her in person, held her hands, cried, and granted forgiveness. As Jennifer explains, “He unlocked places in my soul that I had buried so deep and for the first time in thirteen years, I began to heal. The man who I had prayed to die would now teach me how to live.”
Ronald and Jennifer now shared a common bond. They shared an experience at the hands of a legal system that often fails. Ronald and Jennifer became friends that afternoon they met. They have shared a friendship over the past thirteen years that runs deeper than any of us can even imagine. They both made a resolution for change. The change that was brought upon Ronald in his act of forgiveness is one that he treasures. Jennifer’s ability to accept forgiveness has given her the drive to try and bring justice to others in a similar situation as Ronald Cotton.
Jennifer and Ronald speak publicly about the need for judicial reform. They have traveled the country together. They have walked in picket lines asking for DNA tests to be run on those in prison who claim their innocence. Jennifer is a member of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission, the advisory committee for Active Voices, the Constitution Project, and Mothers for Justice.
Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton have written a book together. The book is titled Picking Cotton. I finished this book in a number of hours, but the days I have spent thinking about it are still here. This book touched my soul. When you read this story, you will hear Jennifer claim that she wished her attacker had left a visual scar on her so that others could see her pain. You will cry huge teardrops at the meeting of Jennifer and Ronald. You will want to reach out and protect Ronald as he enters the prison for a crime he did not commit. There are a few other quotes in the book that will remain with me forever, but I will not spoil too much of the read for you.
You can read more about Jennifer, Ronald, and their story at www.pickingcottonbook.com. This is an inspiring tale of forgiveness, hope, and truth that I know will touch all of you, and I thank Jennifer for sharing her story with us all.
Jennifer’s children (2010)