11/17/13 — Mount Olive College students hear tale of forgiveness and the justice system

View Archive

Mount Olive College students hear tale of forgiveness and the justice system

By Josh Ellerbrock
Published in News on November 17, 2013 1:50 AM

A story that challenged beliefs, while keeping students entertained -- that's what Mount Olive College faculty wanted for their freshman reading assignment this year, and that's what they got from "Picking Cotton."

And to expand the understanding of the book, MOC hosted Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson, the authors and subjects of the book for a retelling of their story late Thursday afternoon.

For those who aren't MOC freshmen, Mrs. Thompson and Cotton made a splash in the news when, in 1995, a DNA-led exoneration released Cotton from a life in prison after being convicted of rape in Burlington. Cotton had spent 11 years in jail due to the eyewitness testimony of Mrs. Thompson, the victim of the rape he was accused of.

But Mrs. Thompson and Cotton's story went on after the incident. They met and a strange friendship was formed.

"This is not a journey either one of us wanted to take," Mrs. Thompson said. "But it's our journey and we started it. I never wanted to do this."

Mrs. Thompson, a short, blonde-haired woman, took emotional control over the audience with her first few words as she gave life to a story that most in the audience had already read.

She described her rape -- "25 minutes of humiliation" -- when a tall young black male with a pencil-thin mustache entered her apartment and threatened her with a knife.

Mrs. Thompson said she thought only of two things during the attack.

"You won't die on your back at the end of this knife," and, she said, to remember every single feature of her attacker so she could identify him later.

She then escaped when she went to get a drink of water from in the kitchen, fleeing into the night at 3 a.m. knowing it meant life or death. A neighbor secured her, and police were called. But he, whoever he was, escaped.

A rape kit was done. And Mrs. Thompson, a college student at the time, hated "with a hate that came through (her) belly."

To continue the investigation, police put together a composite sketch from Mrs. Thompson's testimony. The sketch was made public and tips came in. One tip led to Cotton, who was brought in for a lineup with other past offenders. Cotton had a past sexual assault charge as a 14-year-old with his girlfriend.

Mrs. Thompson picked Cotton out of the lineup.

"The relief was huge. I had gotten it right," she said. Police told her that she had matched the man to a photograph she had already chosen. "Of course I did. I can never forget this face," she said.

And after days of testimony from Mrs. Thompson, Cotton was put away, shackled and driven to prison for life.

"I'll never forget the words of the jury -- guilty, guilty, guilty," Cotton said. "It was like a dream, so I grabbed my arm and pinched it."

In the years after, Mrs. Thompson became an alcoholic. And every night she prayed that Cotton would be raped and killed in prison, which was her right, she said.

"It's OK, because I'm a good person," she said.

Eventually, she settled into a life with a husband and triplets.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the jail walls, Cotton was fighting for his life. As he put it -- "If anything, you get these while you sneeze," he said, holding up his fists.

And from the first, Cotton insisted on his innocence, he said.

But he had no way to prove it until one day during those 11 years in jail, he met a man who not only looked like him, but who also was from Burlington. That man's name was Bobby Poole.

After at least one fight, the two eventually became friends, and one night, Poole confessed to the crime that put Cotton away -- Mrs. Thompson's rape.

Cotton, despite wanting to kill Poole, sent a photo to his lawyer. DNA tests were done, and in a surprisingly short amount of time, Cotton was released back to his family.

Mrs. Thompson learned what happened. To cope with her guilt, she started questioning everything. She made excuses that prison couldn't be so bad, she said. She thought the whole ordeal was over.

But others had heard of her story. A filmmaker wanted to do a documentary on the fallacies of the justice system using her story as a backdrop. She agreed on the terms that she would never meet Cotton, because she was afraid of him and of her mistake.

She watched the film, and Cotton's closing words were -- "I know she's sorry, but I want to hear it from her own mouth."

So, they arranged a meeting. She said she was sorry, yet Cotton took her hands in his and said 'Jennifer, I forgave you years ago.'"

"The man I prayed to die healed me," she said.

And after an outpouring of emotions, the two became friends.

"He's a part of the family now," Mrs. Thompson said.

In 2009, Cotton and Mrs. Thompson wrote their book together, and today, the two tour to spread their story.

As for Bobby Poole, he died of brain cancer in 1998.

"I have a different perspective on punishment than I did," Mrs. Thompson said. "I don't know why the universe works the way it does."