Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

4.1 189
by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, Erin Torneo

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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

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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.

Editorial Reviews

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
John Grisham

Few stories of wrongful convictions have happy endings, but the one told by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino is far different. It is the powerful account of violence, rage, redemption, and, ultimately, forgiveness.
Sr. Helen Prejean
This book will break your heart and lift it up again...a touching and beautiful example of the power of faith and forgiveness. Its message of hope should reverberate far beyond the halls of justice.
Co-Founder and Co-Director of The Innocence Projec Barry C. Scheck
What happened in this book will change what you think of the criminal justice system in this country, and challenge you to help fix it. Each of them tells an extraordinary story about crime, punishment and exoneration, but it's their shared spiritual journey toward reconciliation and forgiveness that is even more compelling and profound.
Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno
Few people have done more to put a human face on issues involving wrongful convictions than Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. Yet through their shared pain, they have been able to forge a friendship that most of us search our lives for.
Studs Terkel
[A] remarkable testament...powerful...A MUST read.
St. Petersburg Times

The story of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, as told in first-person voices in this gripping, well-written book, is exceptional.
The Washington Post

Even the most cynical reader will be impressed with Cotton's resilience and grace.
The Louisville Courier-Journal

Picking Cotton is the nonfiction title you must not overlook this year. It is as compelling as any fiction, yet the truth at its core will move you to tears.
The Charlotte Observer

Picking Cotton is ultimately an uplifting story of hope.

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St. Martin's Press
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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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