Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

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Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint by a man who broke into her apartment while she slept. She was able to escape, and eventually positively identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. Ronald insisted that she was mistaken-- but Jennifer's positive identification was the compelling evidence that put him behind bars. After eleven years, Ronald was allowed to take a DNA test that proved his innocence. He was released, after serving more than a decade in prison for a crime he never committed. Two years later, Jennifer and Ronald met face to face-- and forged an unlikely friendship that changed both of their lives.

In their own words, Jennifer and Ronald unfold the harrowing details of their tragedy, and challenge our ideas of memory and judgment while demonstrating the profound nature of human grace and the healing power of forgiveness.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
On the 1984 night that changed her life, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student when she was awakened from a sleep by a knife-wielding rapist. She escaped from her attacker, and several days later, she picked the culprit from first a mug shot and then a physical lineup. Or so she thought. Ronald Cotton, the man who Jennifer was "absolutely, positively, without-a-doubt certain" was her rapist, served 11 years for the crime before he was exonerated by DNA evidence. Two years after his release, he and Jennifer met and, against every expectation, formed a resilient friendship. Picking Cotton, their joint memoir, speaks not only to their tragic shared experience but also to the issue of mistaken eyewitness testimony, the number one cause of wrongful convictions. Heartbreaking and then inspiring.
Kate Tuttle
Their story, told here in alternating sections, emphasizes that both were victims. Still, as both acknowledge, Thompson-Cannino, traumatized as she was, spent the next decade in freedom, marrying and having kids, while Cotton endured prison. Left mostly unexamined is the role race played in his incarceration, but even the most cynical reader will be impressed with Cotton's resilience and grace.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In July 1984, Thompson-Cannino, a white college student in Burlington, N.C., was raped by a black intruder. She identified her assailant in a lineup as Cotton; he was sentenced to life plus 50 years. When he secured a new trial in 1987, he found himself charged with a second attack and sentenced to two life sentences plus 54 years. DNA evidence at a new trial, eight years later, exonerated him of both charges. Authors Thompson-Cannino and Cotton offer this riveting account of their separate, yet connected, lives through those years. The first two parts describe their dreadful experiences: for her, in the "[s]aliva swabs, vaginal swabs, pubic hair combings" of the rape kit; for him, being "sprayed like a dog getting defleaed" at the prison. Thompson-Cannino describes the invasive procedures following a rape, unsettling police procedures (the lineup), unfamiliar legal stages (such as a probable cause hearing) and the disturbing trial. Cotton leads readers through the events following a conviction (the several prisons, adjustments to the prison norm, the alternating hope and despair of the judicial stages). Redemption is the subject of the third part, where Thompson-Cannino and Cotton forge a path to genuine friendship in advocating for the wrongfully convicted. Together they have produced a well-modulated and generously balanced memoir-at once a devastating and uplifting crash course in the criminal justice system. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
In 1984, Thompson-Cannino, a 22-year-old white, North Carolina college student, was viciously raped by a black intruder and identified Cotton as her attacker. Her testimony led to his conviction and a sentence of life imprisonment, though DNA evidence exonerated him 11 years later. Unbelievably, the two formed a genuine friendship and now together advocate for judicial reform. Audie Award nominee Richard Allen and Karen White (My Kind of Place) bring this poignant, simply unforgettable, joint first-person account wholly to life. Recommended for all. [See Major Audio Releases, LJ 2/1/09; the St. Martin's hc, a New York Times best seller, was recommended as "an asset to any crime collection," LJ 2/1/09.—Ed.]—Beth Farrell, Portage Cty. Dist. Lib., Garrettsville, OH
Kirkus Reviews
A rape victim and the man she falsely accused-in good faith-collaborate to share an important, affecting story of fatally mistaken identity. Thompson-Cannino was a college student at Elon College in1984, when a knife-wielding man broke into her Burlington, N.C., apartment and raped her. She saw him clearly and escaped the apartment before he could harm her further. After working with a police sketch artist and examining mug shots gathered by police, she identified 22-year-old Cotton, who was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. He maintained his innocence from the time police approached him, but nobody except his family believed him. Sophisticated DNA testing did not exist in the mid-'80s, and few people inside or outside the criminal-justice system understood the unreliability of eyewitness identification, especially across racial lines. (Thompson-Cannino is Caucasian, Cotton African-American.) Convicted prisoners rarely receive attention when claiming innocence from their cells, and they usually lack the money, the legal assistance and the support network to make their assertions heard. Thompson didn't have much money, but he drew strength from his family and found unusually receptive lawyers willing to represent him pro bono in time-consuming, seemingly hopeless post-conviction proceedings. Journalist Torneo alternates between the first-person narratives of Thompson-Cannino and Cotton. When she heard that a DNA test had set him free after 11 years in prison, she was stunned and guilt-ridden. After seeing a TV documentary about how eyewitnesses make mistakes, in which Cotton said he wondered why he'd never heard from the woman responsible for his wrongful incarceration,she arranged to meet him. Despite the nervousness of her relatives and the anger of his wife, they built up mutual trust, became friends and eventually began traveling together to educate audiences about flaws in the criminal-justice system. Injustice and redemption are overused words, but this heartfelt joint memoir justifies its subtitle. Agent: Christine Earle/ICM
From the Publisher
"[A] remarkable testament.... A MUST read." —Studs Terkel, author of Touch and Go
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312376536
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/3/2009
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 411,671
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

JENNIFER THOMPSON-CANNINO lives in North Carolina with her family. She speaks frequently about the need for judicial reform, and is a member of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission, the advisory committee for Active Voices, and the Constitution Project. Her op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, the Durham-Herald Sun, and the Tallahassee Democrat.

RONALD COTTON lives with his wife and daughter in North Carolina. He has spoken at various schools and conferences including Washington and Lee University, University of Nevada Las Vegas, Georgetown Law School, and the Community March for Justice for Troy Anthony Davis in Savannah, GA.

ERIN TORNEO is a Los Angeles-based writer. She was a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts Nonfiction Fellow.

The authors received the 2008 Soros Justice Media Fellowship for PICKING COTTON.

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Read an Excerpt


September 2006

Ronald Cotton stands a few rows behind Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, watching as she cranes her head through the crowd, looking for him among the faces of the parents who have come out to watch their children play soccer. All of the fields at Northeast Park in Gibsonville, North Carolina, are occupied on this bright autumn afternoon: It’s tournament day, with a parking lot crammed full of yellow school buses, SUVs, and station wagons to prove it.

"Where are you?" she says into her cell phone, unable to find him.

"I’m right here," Ron says, enjoying the joke. Then he reaches out and touches Jennifer’s arm, causing her to turn and jump. "It’s so good to see you," she says, laughing and moving close to embrace him. "You’d think I would’ve spotted you!" Wearing a blue baseball hat, Ron at six foot four towers over her. He’s got to lean waay down to hug Jennifer, a tiny blonde with bobbed hair. The sun catches the sterling medallion he always wears around his neck: an eagle in flight.

Ron immediately gets into the game. "C’mon! Don’t let ’em take that ball!" he shouts, clapping his hands.

Beside him, Raven, his nine- year- old daughter in neat braids he helped do that morning, shoots him a look. "Daddy!"

"What? Am I embarrassing you?" She nods, which only makes Ron yell louder. "Let’s go!"

He is cheering on Jennifer’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Brittany, who plays center-midfield, the link between offense and defense. Her brown ponytail bopping behind her, she keeps her cleats close to the ball, switch- backing across the field to try to keep it away from the other side until she’s got a clear path to pass it to her fellow players. When she sees her opening, Brittany makes a strong, sure kick and sends the ball to her teammate, who takes off for the goal. The crowd yells for the black and white ball to make it into the net as if nothing could matter more.

The Reds, Brittany’s team, win the first game of the tournament, and then they break for lunch. Brittany, spotting Ron and Raven with her mom, jogs over and hugs them both, happy they are there. The four of them head over with the other parents to the park’s pavilion. With his Burger King bags picked up from the drive- in, Ron isn’t part of the usual soccer parent crowd: moms like Jennifer who unpack neatly prepared sandwiches and snacks from Tupperware and coolers. After the kids eat, Brittany heads off to the grass to show Raven how to kick straight and dribble, while Jennifer and Ron catch up. One nosy mom can’t resist and comes over to say hello.

"Jennifer, Brittany was just great today!" she says. "Too bad your husband missed it. Where is he?" "He’s with my son, doing ‘guy stuff,’ but they should be here any minute," says Jennifer.

The mother’s eyes dart over to Ron and back to Jennifer. She can’t figure it out. "So how do y’all know each other?" the mom says, motioning to Ron.

Jennifer and Ron look at each other, smiling. They let the moment settle between them, hanging in the air like the sweet green smell of freshly cut grass, ready for hordes of high school girls to trample it.

"We go way back," Ron says, in his characteristic way of understating things.

What they don’t say is that twenty- two years ago, Jennifer sat in a jail house just five miles down the interstate, looked at seven black men standing in front of her, and picked Ronald Cotton as the man who had brutally raped her eleven days before.

Excerpted from Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson- Cannino.

Copyright © 2009 by Jennifer Thompson- Cannino.

Published in March 2009 by St. Martin's Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Picking Cotton is told through a unique pattern of alternating first-person narration. The first section is Jennifer's voice, the second is Ronald's and the final section alternates between the two voices. What did you think of this style? Why do you think the authors chose to present their stories this way?

2. This memoir opens with a graphic description of Jennifer's rape and the hours following it. What did you think of the choice to describe the crime in such detail? Do you think that it was important for you, as a reader, to experience the crime from Jennifer's perspective? What did Picking Cotton demonstrate about how rape victims are treated and/or how rape cases are handled in the hours and days after the crime?

3. Compare the experience of reading about Ronald's arrest and first trial from Jennifer's perspective to the experience of reading about the arrest and first trial from Ronald's perspective. How were their recollections different? Was it important to read descriptions of the same events from two utterly opposite viewpoints? Did your sympathies change or grow from Jennifer's descriptions of the events to Ronald's?

4. Were you surprised by what happened at Ronald's second trial? How did you react to the knowledge that Bobby Poole had been bragging about his crimes? How did you feel when Jennifer looked Bobby Poole in the eye and did not recognize him? How did you respond when Ronald was convicted a second time?

5. Throughout Picking Cotton, Ronald describes the extreme challenges of serving time in prison as an innocent man. He writes, "Put a man in a cage with beasts and throw away the key, and it's usually not very long before the man is a beast himself." In what ways does this apply to Ronald's time in prison? How did you react to his descriptions of prison life? What do you think sustained Ronald while he was in prison?

6. How much of a role, if any, do you think race played in this case?

7. In Picking Cotton, Jennifer comes to learn that memory can be "contaminated." Did you realize this about memory? What actions by the investigating detectives inadvertently led to this happening? Have you ever experienced a situation where your memory proved unreliable?

8. What role does the act of asking for forgiveness play in the narrative? What about the act of granting forgiveness? Were you surprised by how strongly Jennifer felt about asking to be forgiven for her mistakes? Were you surprised that Ronald chose to forgive Jennifer? How did you feel about Jennifer's choice to forgive Bobby Poole?

9. Jennifer writes of Ron, "To say we were friends just wasn't enough." How would you characterize Ronald and Jennifer's friendship? What purpose does the friendship seem to serve in both their lives? Were you surprised that they were able to become such good friends?

10. How do you feel about the reliability of eyewitness testimony after reading Picking Cotton? Did Picking Cotton change any of your opinions about the judicial system?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 189 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 189 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Thanks for sharing Jennifer and Ron...it teaches us how to forgive and love.

    I found this story so inspiring at a time that we are all struggling for a reason that our world is in such disarray. It shows how very sensitive a rape can be and what can be done to overcome a judgement gone wrong. Truly goes deep into one's thoughts and emotions.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 3, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Easy read/ emotionally touching!

    Feel the emotions of both sides of the story. Feel the consequences of how what you say , can affect others. Learn how forgiveness can improve your life and the lives of those around you. A sad and heartwarming story full of love, in one. Inspiring!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 10, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Loved This Book...

    No need to say much about Picking Cotton except that I think everyone ought to read it. Powerful message of forgiveness.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 5, 2009

    can you believe what you see?

    I purchased this book because I saw Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton interviewed about how their lives became intertwined forever.
    Any woman who ever thought about how she would deal with being raped likely believes she would remember that man's face forever. Because of many factors, Jennifer believed she had identified the right man only to find after two trials and eleven years passed that she was wrong.
    What was so amazing about this story is that Ronald Cotton was able to accept Jennifer's apology and that she was brave enough to offer it. I can't imagine the kind of heart it would take to forgive someone for taking eleven years of your life. Both Jennifer and Ronald were the victims of the same man....the one who raped Jennifer and the one who allowed Ronald to spend eleven years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was able to blame the real perpetrator and not Jennifer for his incarceration. It's just an amazing and uplifting story.
    If you are a believer in capital punishment this is a story you need to read. We certainly are finding, with the advances in DNA testing, that there are innocent people....especially black men, who are locked up or executed for crimes they did not commit.
    My heart goes out to both of these victims. Jennifer and Ronald will never be the same, but they have certainly shown how forgiveness can change lives.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2009


    I actually had the chance to hear Jennifer Thompson-Cannino speak about her story and it was the most powerful, amazing, wonderful, heartbreaking story that i have ever heard. I was truly touched by the forgiveness of Ronald for Jennifer. Their friendship is one for the ages. I applaude both Ronald and Jennifer for publishing their story, it is truly amazing.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 23, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Pick it up!

    Picking Cotton...it is a great story of forgiveness and not letting your circumstances be your fall. We all have something to learn from Ronald Cotton and his story of grace of mercy. How in the most horrible of situations he never gave up hope that the LORD would see him through, and that he was innocent. Eleven years of his life was taking from him, but after it was all over, he looked to God for His purpose in it all. And teaches each reader how to forgive the way our LORD so gracefully did for us! As a woman, I will not lie, at parts it was very difficult to read, through are some disturbing parts, but still a good read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2009

    Wonderful book!

    This book is a must read. It's a compelling true story, beautifully written.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 5, 2012

    Close to home

    To preface my review - I had just started working at Burlington Times-News the summer Ronald Cotton was finally set free and was in the middle of the unfolding drama. I grew up 15 miles from the Brookwood Condos but was a child at the time of the rape and trials. So the book is a mix of "ooh, I remember that" and "heh, I don't remember that." The park that Ronald and Jennifer are in at the start of the book is in the neighborhood of my childhood home. So, that said, this book hits really close to home. And doubtless, that colors my perception of this book.

    I did really enjoy the back and forth his and her viewpoints. And their voices do come through loud and clear - Jennifer is a young and innocent girl forced to deal with some very harsh realities and how that changed her. Ronald is a good soul who suffers horrible injustice but his soul isn't changed. Their descriptions of the places and people are spot-on with my viewpoints, and I think that they do a very eloquent job of bringing the reader into that place at that time.

    While the book is about the harsh realities of racism, revenge and remorse - it also brings with it a good dose of hope that while wrongs may be done in the past we can rise above them and find an inner peace and forgiveness.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2011

    Great book!!!!

    This was a wonderfully written, heart warming story of courage and forgiveness. To read what both people in the book went through but still, some how, were able to come out even stronger is amazing. I can only hope that I could show such warmth and forgiveness in such a horrible situation. I thank them both for sharing their story. It reminds me to enjoy every day and just how wonderful people can be!!!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 8, 2010

    Amazing story

    This is by far one of the best books that I have ever read. The story is simply amazing and it touches the heart. It's a journey that will have you reading until the book is through, not want to put it down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2010

    Interesting story, but Poorly written

    "Picking Cotton" is an absorbing story of a man that is wrongly convicted, mostly by eyewitness account, of the rape of a young woman. Write in first person back and forth between the victim and the "suspect," it gives an interesting firsthand account of how each was dealing with the situation as it unfolded. I enjoyed reading the women's point of view and how she had to learn to forgive.
    I did not, however, think the book was well written. There were some awkward points where things were left unexplained and something that was seemingly unimportant to the story was talked about. I thought the editing could have been better and that's why I gave the book a 3 star rating.
    I've read a lot of Innocence Project books but this one you actually get to hear the accounts from each person. I'm glad that, at least, this story had a happy ending.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2015

    Highly Recommended. Every adult should read to understand our justice system!

    In these times of protest this book is the answer to understanding in detail the underlying problems with our justice system and why so many are frustrated. It is a true story where compassion for another race has to be learned the hard way. It opens ones eyes to problems in society, and in particular the justice system and why it just does not work. Since anyone of us could be called to jury duty, this is the book to read so that you do not send an innocent person to prison. It is a quick read and does not get overly graphic so your senses will not be bombarded in too negative of a way. This book needs to be read by every adult in America.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2013


    Make this a NOOK FIND o fthe week!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2012



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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2012


    Good book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2012

    Must read!

    One of the best books I've read in awhile. Very powerful and emotional story. I literally couldn't put this book down until I had finished.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2012


    Couldnt put it down!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2012

    an awsome read An awsome and

    An awsome and engrosing read, a book for all time

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2011

    Clever name.... watch the video

    In the video, she seems so sure of herself and confident that cotten did it. Even though she though that he was the person that raped her and I understand that it was a mistake but I think she could of said she wasnt completely sure when naming the accused. We learned about this case in AP phycology and how this is false memory. The person that really raped her wasnt even in the line up for a choice of who raped her when she was supposed to identify the man. I also find it kind of wierd how the only thong she was thinking of while she was being raped was how she was going to memorize the man's face and send bim to jail. I also find it hard to beleive that the raper was stupid enough to believe that she was going to fix him something to drink when she went downstairs. Even though she said she was 100% sure that Cotton was the one that did it, her intuition was disproved after 11 years when the technology for DNA was developed. Pretty good book overall.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2011

    Picking cotton


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