PAT TAYLOR: Redemption: How Mistaken Rape ID Changed Two Lives
There are few things that seem more daunting than the prospect of sitting in a courtroom during a trial, knowing the prosecuting attorney is going to ask you to point out the person who committed the violent crime of raping you.
That same man put a cold blade to your throat when you started to scream and said he wasn't interested in your money. He's black and male; you're white and female.
You are sure you have the right person -- not a shred of doubt. You studied him, looked in his eyes, searched his skin for scars or tattoos, smelled him -- anything to identify -- while clinging desperately to the hope of just living through the moment. He was the guy picked out of the photo lineup and then later a live lineup. You got it right. Justice is done, an evil man is put away for a lifetime, no longer a threat to anyone except other evil men.
Now, suppose you got it wrong. Picked the wrong man. Accused him of raping you and he was sent to prison for life-plus-50. The man you pointed out really didn't do it, and the DNA evidence proves it. He spent 11 years in prison because of what you said. And you were wrong.
It happens. In fact, it happened to my cousin.
Her name is Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, and the name of the man she sent to prison is Ronald Cotton. Their story is public now, told by CBS's "60 Minutes" a couple of weeks ago in a segment called "Eyewitness."
If you didn't see it, it's worth a look. You can find it by going on cbsnews.com and searching her name, or by using the Web address at the end of the article. Jennifer and Ronald also have a new book, called "Picking Cotton." The book tells their story in their individual and combined voices.
Jennifer was 22 years old when the crime occurred, a straight-A college student living in an apartment off-campus in the Piedmont North Carolina town of Burlington. In the dark of summer night she was raped by a black man, who fled her apartment and raped another woman a half-mile away on the same night.
Jennifer said she studied her attacker's features and voice during the act so that if she lived she could identify him. A few days later, she picked Cotton (thus the name of the book) out of a photo lineup and later picked him from a live lineup after he was brought in as a suspect.
Ronald Cotton hadn't helped himself with the authorities. He gave a false alibi upon his arrest, giving the law reason to think he was lying. And he had a B&E on his record -- and a sexual assault charge to go with it. So it was easy for law-enforcement officers to think they might have their man.
But it was Jennifer's finger in the courtroom that sent Ronald Cotton to prison. Once he had gone away, Jennifer continued to suffer from the ordeal, just as he did. The ordeal changed her to a person with deep-seated hatred that she couldn't let go. She spent years hoping her attacker would get raped and die in prison.
As time passed, Jennifer's life began to become more normal. She married and had triplets, who are now in their late teens. She lived quietly in a neat, middle-class kind of way in Winston-Salem, raising three children. And adjusting, always dealing invisibly with pain and angst from her past. It never completely went away.
Bit of DNA told the Story
A few years after Cotton's trial, a new inmate entered prison. His name was Bobby Poole. And he, like Cotton, was from Burlington. Poole had facial features similar to Ron Cotton's, and the two even got confused in the prison kitchen where they both worked. One day, Cotton asked Poole directly if he had been the one who raped Jennifer. Poole denied it then, but later told another inmate he had raped both women that night.
That was enough to get Cotton a new trial. But when Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was brought back to court and asked again to point out her rapist, she was as certain as ever it was Cotton -- even though Bobby Poole was in the courtroom and actually took the witness stand at one point!
In short, not one shred of doubt ever entered Jennifer's mind once it was set on Cotton. She knew who had raped her, and was actually angry that anyone would come back into her life and challenge her on it. She said she "felt nothing" when she saw Bobby Poole, not even a twinge of doubt he might be the one. Meanwhile, Cotton's fate was hanging by the thread of her testimony.
About the same time, thanks to the O.J. Simpson trial, Ronald Cotton learned of a new piece of evidence testing called DNA. He called his attorney, a law professor, and asked him if it was possible to get a DNA test from the rape evidence. The lawyer warned him about the possible consequences should the evidence be damning -- that the law couldn't help him after that.
Cotton, sure of his innocence, said to send the evidence to the lab. There wasn't much left in the evidence lockers in Burlington: one partial sperm cell. But that was enough to yield a DNA sample, and the results proved that not only had Ronald Cotton not committed the crime, but that Bobby Poole had.
'How Wrong I Was'
My cousin was overcome with guilt when she learned of the mistake. "Guilt. Shame. Suffocating shame, debilitating shame," is how she described it in the "60 Minutes" piece. It was a shame so strong that she labors every day to rectify the harm through her good works.
How did it happen? How could she have been so sure and so wrong? There is a tendency to think it might have been racism, but there is a broader psychology behind it that's just now being understood.
The methodology of picking people in lineups is being changed as a result of these kinds of mistakes, and rightfully so. Many people -- a high percentage of them black men -- are falsely accused by eyewitnesses and exonerated by DNA years later. There is no stronger testimony than an eyewitness, we have always thought. But the eye and the memory, we are learning, are fleeting and unreliable.
I got to know Jennifer about 10 years ago. She's sweet-natured, intelligent, attractive and intense. But I became aware that something drove her in a way unlike anything I'd ever known. There was a dark side to her past, I knew, but I didn't understand at first. As her story unfolded during our times together, I wondered how she could cope with such a burden.
Jennifer's emotional rehabilitation started the day she met Ronald in a church. He came over, accepted her apologies and tears, took her hands in his and forgave her on the spot. He said he just wanted to be happy and move on with life. Here was a man whom she had spent years bitterly hating, even hoping he might suffer a cruel death. In a single moment he forgave her.
"How wrong I was," she told the TV interviewer. "And how good he is."
A Shared Mission
They became real friends and co-authored the book together. They now speak to groups on behalf of wrongly convicted inmates and spend time together on a scale that seems unbelievable, given the background they share.
Part of the reason is Ronald Cotton's personality. He is, obviously, a rare person and a class act. Gentle and soft-spoken, he is more interested in living than harboring ill will. He's working on his future, working to put the past behind him.
In many ways, Jennifer has traveled a road as hard as Ronald's. She was a victim of the original crime in more ways than one. She spent time in a prison of her own. She endured the scars of rape, and that's enough for a lifetime. I know that her mistake affected her just as deeply and that it is what drives her efforts today.
She's on a mission to try to keep the same thing from happening to other men. She speaks to groups these days -- prosecutors, lawmen, legislators and judges -- to get the word out about the inherent prejudices in the eyewitness system and the frailty of memory. She works tirelessly, with focus and clarity. Her life has a different purpose from the original dreams of that bright young college girl.
Their speaking schedule will pick up now that their story is out, but the memories will never go away. The guilt doesn't chase Jennifer any more, though. She's freer these days, more relaxed. And maybe Ronald can put distance between him and his real prison.
Slowly their story and their work together is making a difference in the way the accused are treated and justice is carried. The wheels of progress turn slowly, but they do turn.
To view the 60 Minutes program, got to: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4852659n%3fsource=search_video.
Pat Taylor is advertising director of The Pilot and a frequent contributor to this section.
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