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Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, Erin Torneo
Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, Erin Torneo


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The New York Times best selling true story of an unlikely friendship forged between a woman and the man she incorrectly identified as her rapist and sent to prison for 11 years.

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.

With Picking Cotton, Jennifer and Ronald tell in their own words 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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312599539
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/05/2010
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 71,942
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.32(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

JENNIFER THOMPSON-CANNINO lives in North Carolina with her family. RONALD COTTON also lives with his wife and daughter North Carolina. 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 this title.

Read an Excerpt

Picking Cotton

Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

By Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, Erin Torneo

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-6215-5


I USED TO WALK three miles to campus and back every day from my apartment in Burlington. There weren't any sidewalks on West Front Street, so during the summer I hugged the edge of the road, trying to stay in the patches of shade when the magnolia trees provided them. I didn't know many people in my neighborhood, although I passed their houses and proud lawns every day. I don't know if I ever even noticed the brick home with white trim just beyond my apartment complex, but on the night that I ran through the damp grass, wearing only a blanket, it was that door I pounded on.

On my way to school, my head was always buried in index cards. I had stacks and stacks of them, careful notes all hole punched and ring bound — a different ring for every class. Just across from campus was a Hardee's, where I'd stop and get a coffee, then sit outside and keep studying. I didn't look over my shoulder or pay too much attention. My focus was on what lay ahead: I was going to graduate in the fall with a perfect 4.0, and my boyfriend, Paul, and I were talking about getting married. He was in his first year of business school at UNC–Chapel Hill. That's all my life was really about: college and my boyfriend. I was twenty-two years old and those were the kind of crystal-clear pictures I carried in my mind.

One night coming home in the dark — it must have been the beginning of July — I noticed a small orange glow as I was walking up to my door. It was just a pinprick of light cutting through the branches. The dry burn caught in the back of my throat. In the tree across from my bedroom window, someone was smoking a cigarette. I couldn't see who it was, but someone was there. I told myself it must be a kid — someone who had climbed up the tree to sneak a smoke. I gave it no further thought.

But that's the picture that flashed in my mind afterward, a snapshot uncovered by my brain as it was reeling for answers to what happened later that month — July 1984.

Burlington, North Carolina, is like most college towns: It swells during the school year with kids from Elon College, and contracts during the summer, when many of them return to their hometowns, to their parents, to the summer jobs they've had since they were in high school. I'd decided to stay that summer because I was taking classes, and because Paul was from Burlington, and would be home for the summer break from his classes in Chapel Hill. His parents ran a barbecue place in downtown, or what was left of it. Already the little mom-and-pop stores were emptying out or moving closer to the newly built mall near Huffman Mill Road, right off of I-40. But people still came to J.J.'s BBQ no matter what. They came for the vinegared pork and sweet tea that were as much a part of the Burlington summer as the humidity.

Most days I taught aerobics at Spa Lady, and on Saturdays, when I finished teaching, I would stay to lift some weights and put in a few hours at the sales desk. That Saturday was no different. When I got off, Paul and I spent the afternoon together, browsing at a shopping mall and eating lunch nearby until the heat finally got to us. We ended up back at my apartment, napping in the comfort of the air-conditioning. In the early evening, it cooled off enough for us to play tennis at the Alamance County Country Club, where he and his family were members. We were famished when we finished our showers, so we headed over to China Inn Restaurant — a favorite of ours. It was one of those all-you-can-eat deals, and I loaded up on fried rice, spring rolls, and refill after refill of sweet iced tea. I'm sure all the MSG had something to do with it — by the time we got to his friend's party, a fierce headache was blooming behind my eyes. We didn't stay very long.

Back at my apartment we turned up the A/C unit in the den full blast. Paul came into my room, carrying a glass of water and some aspirin. I fell asleep to his rubbing my back. The police report would later indicate that he slipped out around 11:00 P.M., taking care not to wake me.

Around 3:00 A.M., something pulled me from sleep, the sound of feet shuffling. At the twilight edge of consciousness, I searched the dim borders between sleep and wakefulness. Was it a noise from my dream? A nightmare? Or something outside my head? All I heard was the thrum and rattle of the air conditioner against the metal frame of the window. My weighted eyelids closed and sank me right back into sleep.

Something grazed my arm. I opened my eyes and felt my heart hammering through my chest. Everything was still and quiet, save for the percussion of blood in my ears, the rush of my breath. My body was terrified although my mind hadn't caught up yet. I struggled to focus my eyes in the fuzzy dark of my room. Instinctively, I pulled the sheets up around my neck. I began to make out the contours of my white dresser, my Smurfette doll, the pale blue and peach knickknacks my mom and I had cheerily decorated the apartment with when I'd moved in the previous fall. By the side of my bed, as I made out an unfamiliar roundness, a stab of pure panic hit my gut. It was the top of someone's head. Somebody was crouching by my right side.

"Who is that? Who's there?" I said, allowing myself to think it must be Paul, or someone playing a stupid joke.

A man sprang up and was on me in seconds. I heard myself scream. Something cold, flat, and metallic pressed into my neck. My mind snapped awake.

"Shut up or I'll cut you!" he hissed, clamping a gloved hand down over my mouth. His breath was inches from my own, and it reeked like an old ashtray someone had spilled beer all over.

Can't breathe, I tried to say, my words muffled by the rough material of his glove. He moved his hand away from my mouth and used it to pin my arms back over my head. "Scream and I'll kill you," he said, pushing the point of the blade harder into my neck with his other hand. My first thought was that he was robbing me and that, when I woke up, I'd startled him. I told him he didn't have to hurt me. I would give him my credit cards, my car keys. I would not call the police.

"My wallet is in the den," I offered, my voice strangled and small from the lack of air in my constricted chest. "Take all my money." I squirmed under him but he was too heavy, the lamp on my night table too far out of my reach. Without anything to use as a weapon, I had little to help me fight back. I was certain that even if I freed my hands, the best I could do was slap him before he stabbed me. I couldn't kick him because he was sitting on my legs. At five foot two, I knew I wouldn't win a physical struggle.

There in my memory, at the knife-edge of fear, time distorted: Some moments hurtled by; others seeped by slowly, as if they were becoming one with everything I was ever going to be. In this particular moment, he sneered at me.

"I got your ten dollars," he said, "but I don't want your fucking money." He reached down, yanked the sheet away from me, and pulled off my purple underwear.

The definitiveness of that knowledge — that I was going to be raped — settled on me like his weight, crushing me. Was this how I was going to die? Was this the last thing I would see? My head ran its own track of protest while my body lay there, unable to move. I don't want to die! I want to live! I want to see my mom and dad again! Paul!

"Just relax. It's been a long time for you, hasn't it, baby?" He put his head down between my legs. The intimacy of this gesture revolted me. My body went rigid, an unconscious resistance all the way down to the muscle: Don't touch me. The Chinese food I'd eaten with Paul churned in my stomach. Was it only a few hours ago that we'd sat at China Inn? My disbelief was a kind of vertigo, and I clutched dumbly for anything to prove that this wasn't really happening. But those hours were already part of something else that seemed to drift further and further out of reach: before — a perpetual yesterday before this night ripped a hole in my life that I tumbled into, bottomless and dark. I swallowed back my nausea, grateful that all I had drunk at dinner was iced tea. It seemed vital that my mind was clear because I was imploring it to figure out what to do. Think. Think! My mind wanted to leave, to dull the sensate horror of his hands and mouth on me, but I knew I must stay present if I was going to have any chance of staying alive.

"Your man's overseas in Germany, ain't he?" He was wrong. It was my brother Joe who was backpacking over there, but I didn't bother to correct him. He took my stunned silence for what it was, interpreted it. "I know all about you, Jennifer. You from Winston-Salem. They burned witches there, ain't that right?" he said. "Yeah, you a witch. We gonna have a good time tonight."

Again I didn't correct him, but I registered that he wasn't as smart as he thought. In school, we had studied the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, and I never forgot Giles Corey, the only man in American history ever pressed to death. To force him to talk, the court had placed a board upon his chest and piled on stone after stone. His last words were, "More weight," before his lungs collapsed and his rib cage snapped all around him.

My bones didn't give way. I was alive and breathing, alert to the sounds of his unzipping and kicking off his shoes and my silent dread of anticipating what was next. I smelled the scent of cigarette smoke all over him and then he was inside me, his face just above mine. He told me he knew I wore glasses, so he thought I couldn't see him. He was wrong again. My glasses were for distance; everything right in front of me, I could see. Light from the parking lot lamppost filtered through the blinds — it wasn't a lot but it was enough. In blinks, I willed myself to note the details. I studied his face for features to identify. The hairline, his awful mouth. Did he have scars? Tattoos? He had close-cropped hair. Although I didn't want to look at him, I had to. How much could I bear?

I tried to look in his eyes. They were distinctly almond shaped, small, and set deep into his face. I searched for something human to connect to, some kind of appeal I could make through eye contact. But he kept shifting his dark gaze from my eyes. He had high, broad cheekbones, and his mouth was not overly large. A faint shadow of hair framed his upper lip; it looked more like dirt than a mustache.

He kept talking to me, telling me I probably never had a man like him. It was sick what he did, as if we were lovers meeting surreptitiously in the middle of the night, as if this was some kind of fantasy. I was never so enraged and frightened at the same time. My hands balled up into fists — I couldn't stop the fight in them, useless as they were under him. I thought if I could just keep him talking, if I could win his trust, maybe I could get him to put his weapon down. Maybe I could figure out a way to run. I was trying to learn anything about where he lived, or went to school, how old he was, any clue to who this monster in the dark was. The only way I could fight him was to outsmart him.

"I'm afraid of knives," I told him. "I can't relax until you put it down. Can you put it outside? On my car?" I lied. But it was all a twisted lie anyway: his kissing me, talking to me. Like it was a game we were playing together.

I could sense his giving in. He stopped and looked at me. "You ain't gonna call the police?" Here it was: my will staking a claim, this first tiny victory giving way to a hope that maybe I would survive the night.

"No. Just drop it outside on my car. Please, I can't relax." I used his words. He didn't get angrier. If he did this, I thought, I could shut the door behind him fast. It'll give me enough time to call 911. I had no way of knowing that the phone lines had already been cut.

He began to get off me. He reached for his shoes on the floor, the ones he'd removed as he got on me, punctuating the moment with a thud. They were black canvas shoes. He moved slowly, testing me, unsure. I didn't feel powerful, but we were at least negotiating now. His uncertainty about what I was going to do reminded me that he hadn't taken everything from me.

"I have to pee," I announced. I wasn't asking for his permission. I headed out to the hallway, toward the bathroom. "First, I have to watch you go outside so I know you really went. While you're out there, I'll go to the bathroom." I grabbed the soft stadium blanket and wrapped it around me — Hennie, our housekeeper, my second mother, gave this to me — the red, yellow, and blue plaid that I was hoping, wishing, and praying would keep him from touching me again. I trembled with fear and he accepted it was because I was cold. But the blanket was a deliberate choice. I wasn't wearing any clothes, but that wasn't going to stop me from running if I got a chance. Once in the bathroom, I turned on the light, getting another glimpse of his face.

"Turn it off!" he yelled, retreating like a wounded animal into the shadows. I closed the door and ran the water. The bathroom window was too small for me to climb out; if he came after me in here, I'd be trapped. I rushed out into the hallway.

There was a night-light in the den, breaking up the inky corners of the hallway. My eyes continued to adjust to the dark, giving me more detail on him. Standing next to him for a few minutes, I tried to record information about how tall he was, if he walked pigeon toed or duck footed. Based on my height, I figured he must be about six feet tall. As he inched his way toward the front door, he didn't take his eyes off me. "You gonna let me back in, right?"

I reassured him, did my best to sound natural. But I frantically wondered if I could be fast enough to get to the front door before he came back in. It was a chance I'd have to take. I heard the knife hit the table on the porch, his frame still in the doorway. He never even stepped outside; in an instant, he shut and locked the front door. I remained in the hallway, moving toward the den — anything to keep from going back into the bedroom with him. I needed a new plan.

"Turn on the stereo," he commanded. I walked into the living room, and I saw my postcards and pictures scattered all over the coffee table. I hit the power button on the radio, the DJ's voice on KISS coming through the speakers. I needed to get to the back door. Maybe it was open.

"I'm thirsty. I'm gonna get a drink. You want something?" Another stalling tactic I hoped would buy me some time.

He fiddled with the dial, and the blue LCD light illuminated his profile as he trolled for a station. He didn't have a wide nose. "Yeah, fix me something with Seagram's and let's make it a party." Then he held up something.

"Can I have this?" he said. It was a picture of me, standing in a bathing suit at Apex Lake. Why he asked me this still baffles me, since permission was so beside the point. I nodded and he put it in his back pocket.

I headed into the kitchen. If I survived, I told myself, I would tell the police he was a light-skinned black man, wearing dark khakis, a blue shirt with white stripes on the sleeve, and canvas boat shoes. He wore white knit gloves on his hands. I still had the fibrous taste of them in my mouth.

I flipped on the light switch, because I knew it would protect me. It was a small buffer zone: he wouldn't come too close to me with the light on. On the table I saw a pack of Vantage cigarettes from my purse, empty Coors cans, my wallet with my license out. How long was he here while I slept?

Maybe only fifteen feet were between us, but he was behind a corner, just out of sight. I turned on the faucet. The water hitting the basin made a loud, tinny sound. I opened the cupboards, clanked glasses together, threw ice cubes in the sink. I zeroed in on the door in my kitchen. His way in was my only way out. I heard his voice coming toward the kitchen. "Is that door locked?" he yelled. Run!


Excerpted from Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, Erin Torneo. Copyright © 2009 Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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