University of Washington School of Law
Transcript: Gates PSL Speaker Series "Picking Cotton"
Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino
April 20, 2009
Welcome everyone. Good afternoon. It is always such a pleasure to see a
room full of people here to celebrate justice with us and to really do
deeper inquiry and examination into what justice means for all of us as
lawyers and law students and people who care about the law.
name is Michele Storms and I direct the Gates Public Service Law
Program along with the Integrity of Justice Project. We are so happy to
bring together two really extraordinary individuals to talk with you
this afternoon. I'm going to just tell you a couple of things about who
we are and what we're doing. Then I'm going to turn over to Theresa
Connor, who's the director of the Integrity of Justice Project, to more
specifically introduce the program.
The Gates Public Service Law Program is a wonderful program
here at the University of Washington School of Law. It's only about
three years old. We provide scholarships to students who are going to
pursue a public service law career. We also engage in programming to
broaden the horizons of our law school university and broader
communities about what public service is, how that's fulfilled by
lawyers, and what all of us can do to make our justice system a better
system. That is something that we take great pride and pleasure in.
We have a speaker series. We have seminars. We collaborate with
student groups to provide a social justice Tuesday lunchtime seminar.
Every Tuesday there are 60 to 80 law students in here just thinking
about various aspects of the justice system, whether it's about poverty
law, school, segregation issues, fair trade, whatever that might be. We
are having those conversations here. It's a very rich place to study
law and to be a part of this community.
So, to get to the Integrity of Justice Project, speaking of
things that are new and exciting and absolutely wonderful. This is a
project dedicated to fostering a partnership among Washington's law
schools, state prosecutors, law enforcement, defense lawyers, courts,
and others in the justice community in order to identify best practices
and procedures that can help ensure accurate determinations of guilt or
innocence. This is absolutely critical. No one innocent should ever
serve time, and those who are guilty should be dealt with in the system
in an appropriate way. We have a lot to learn and do as a community to
do the best work in that area.
The director of the project, Theresa Connor, is going to
introduce the program. She is a 2006 graduate of this law school. We
are very proud of her. She was an active student in the Innocence
Project Northwest Clinic. Before that, she was a public policy director
for Planned Parenthood of Washington. She has an extensive background
in public policy and education as well as having worked as an
investigative journalist. So, it is my great pleasure to turn the
microphone over to her. Thank you Theresa.
Thank you very much for coming in on one of the best days in Seattle so
far this year and joining us. I am very pleased to bring Jennifer
Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton as part of the Integrity of Justice
Project to Seattle. Actually, they just spoke earlier today in Tacoma
at the Evergreen State College, Tacoma Campus. Jennifer will continue
on tomorrow to Spokane. So, it truly is an outreach across the state
and a collaboration between the three law schools.
of our advisors, John McKay, is here today. He is the faculty liaison
and representing Dean Testy today here at this event in a moment. So,
he'll say a few words from the advisor's perspective about the project
and the collaboration and the involvement of law students. I do want to
let you know that we will have copies of their book, "Picking Cotton,"
after the event today if you would like to take a look at it. They will
be signing books.
Also, to thank the advisors who had volunteered to help lend
their wisdom and their experience in guiding this project. They include
the three deans of the law school, including Dean Hicks, former state
supreme court Justice Robert Udder, Judy Mailing, Judge Thompson from
Spokane from the court of appeals division two, our own Jackie
McMurtrie director of the Innocence Project representing the faculty
for the University of Washington School of Law, Brooks Holland who is
the faculty liaison for Gonzaga, Jeff Robinson who you may know as a
defense lawyer here in Seattle and former president of the Washington
Defense Lawyers' Association, Jose Giaton, Charles Mandigo who is the
former FBI special agent in charge for Seattle, Joanne Moore who is the
director of the office of public defense in Olympia, and another UDUB
alum Ralph Jefferson who's a former police chief of the Lummi tribe.
We have a great group of people with a lot of experience,
various perspectives across the justice community. I believe that we
finally have an opportunity to have the type of community conversation
and public policy conversation that can lead to the type of change that
needs to occur.
With that, I will say thank you. Please turn your cell phones
off if you haven't already. And at some point, we will encourage those
who would like to stay involved and receive information about the
Project to sign up on one of the sign in sheets so that we can keep you
informed. Thank you, again. I'd like to introduce John McKay, our
faculty advisor from CLU.
Thank you, Theresa. You may be wondering why in the world, at an event
like this, a prosecutor would be standing here. The reason is that the
message that Jennifer and Ronald have is one that is felt very dearly
by everyone who believes in justice, and prosecutors above all. The
worst nightmare that a prosecutor can have is of a wrongful conviction
and that someone is serving time unjustly.
we are now in an amazing place, I think, in this state, maybe just on
the dawn really, of looking anew at our justice system to find places
that we can all agree. Maybe agree is the word to note as we start
here. I want to thank Jennifer and Ronald for their courage in coming
and for their energy and for helping us come together and see that even
in an adversarial system, we can identify what is right and have the
courage to discuss that and have the courage to bring change.
We're not sure exactly what road lies ahead of us, but we know
that we have a wonderful example and we intend to follow it. There will
be many opportunities for collaboration. But first, I want to just
mention is of course the collaboration of the three law schools of this
state who are very much involved and the three co-chairs, being Dean
Hicks here at the University of Washington, my dean, Kelly Testy, and
Dean Earl Martin at Gonzaga.
We expect teaching opportunities, scholarship opportunities.
We're very excited about the prospect of our students at all three law
schools participating as we move forward in this discussion. You can
tell by the list of advisors that Theresa mentioned that we have a
number of folks from law enforcement, from public defense, and really
all of us who hunger for justice and doing the right thing, coming
together. So, again, my thanks to our speakers and authors and the main
attractions today, to Jennifer and Ronald, thank you very much.
It is my pleasure to introduce to you Jennifer Thompson-Cannino.
Good afternoon. I am, too, very impressed that so many of you are in
these walls on a day like today, because I think if I'd been your age
I'm not sure... I might would have made a different decision and been
outside. I thank you for coming today and being willing to listen to
Ronald and I share our story and our journey that we have been on.
someone had told me 25 years ago that I would be in Washington State
talking about the integrity of justice, I wouldn't have believed it.
Second, I wouldn't have had any thought that the justice system didn't
work just fine the way it was. I mean, I was 22 years old and, frankly,
bad guys went to prison and victims received justice and that was the
way it was. So, you can imagine, the path that I have been on and the
journey that I have been on has taught me many, many things.
This began, for me, 25 years ago. I probably was the age of
some of you in the audience today; I was 23 years old. I was going to
college at Elon College, which is now Elon University, in Burlington,
North Carolina. I lived alone in an apartment that was about three and
a half miles off of campus. I liked living alone because I liked
setting my own schedule, and I liked studying. I was a 4.0 GPA student.
I was going to be graduating summa cum laude in my degree. And I was
dating a young man at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
who was in graduate school, and he was going to be highly successful.
I had two jobs. I worked very hard to pay for my own way and
take care of myself as an independent young woman, so life was really
great for me, and I had this track that I was on. It was planned. I
knew exactly where I was going, and little did I know that in the early
morning hours of July 29th, that my life would become a train wreck;
that everything I had planned, everything I'd worked so hard for,
everything I had thought was going to be - my life was tragically and
violently taken away from me.
I had gone to bed early July 28th. I had gone out with my
boyfriend, and I had gotten a terrible headache and decided to go home.
And the last thing I remember was him rubbing my back making sure that
I was going to sleep. And the police report showed that he left around
11 PM, and I was fast asleep.
And I lived in a small apartment that had been built many, many
years before, and it was old and there was no such thing as central air
when these apartments were built; and so, therefore, every room had its
own little window air conditioning unit, and the deal was if you wanted
to be cold in the summertime, you couldn't watch television. And if you
wanted to watch television, you couldn't run the air conditioner. The
air conditioners were very, very loud, so I didn't hear the sirens
between midnight and three o'clock AM in my apartment complex.
Someone, a woman across the street from me, had an attempted
break-in, had called the police, and the sirens were everywhere, and I
didn't hear any of it. It's become clear to me now that my apartment
became a safe haven for the rapist that night. He had broken into my
apartment and spent quite a long time, actually, there, going through
my wallet, taking my money, reading my driver's license, reading
postcards that had been sent to me from my brother, who was traveling
He had a couple beers out my refrigerator, smoked a few
cigarettes in my den, and just waited it out until three AM, when I
felt a brush against my arm. Having sensed there was someone in my
room, but not really clear if I was imagining this, or if it was real,
when I looked to left side of my bed, I noticed there was someone's
head sliding beside my mattress. And the first thought in my mind was,
oh, this is just my boyfriend. He fell asleep and he's trying to
quietly leave and go home, and then I thought well, that wouldn't be
accurate because he was a Greek young man, and his mother needed to
know where he was all the time.
So, he wouldn't have been in my apartment at three o'clock in
the morning. [laughs] And so I knew that that was inaccurate. And so
then the next thought was I'm dreaming this. And as I tried to will
myself to go back to sleep, that's when I felt the brush against my
arm. And I screamed very loudly and very quickly. He pounced on my bed
and put a knife to my throat and muffled my mouth with a gloved hand.
Now, I'm straining to see. This has got to be a joke. This has got to
be some frat boy thing, and I've startled him, and this is... But, no,
that's not right.
This is happening very quickly, and I thought, well, he's tried
to rob me. That's what it is. He's tried to rob me. I've startled him
and if I offer him everything I own, he'll quietly leave and not hurt
me. And as I pulled my mouth away from his hand, I said "Don't hurt me.
I'm not going to call the police. You can take everything I own, my
car, my wallet, everything. I won't call the police, I promise." And he
said "I don't want your money." And I knew at that moment what was
going to happen; I knew that I was going to be raped.
I didn't know if he was going to slit my throat. There was a
knife to my throat. I didn't know whether he was going to beat me so
badly that I wish he had slit my throat. I had no idea the outcome of
what was going to happen to me. But, I knew I wanted to survive. My
survival instinct was so strong. I didn't want my mother to have to
identify my body later that day when she came to the hospital. I didn't
want my parents to have to come in and say "Yep, that's her." So, I
wanted to stay alive. I wanted to see one more sun come up. I wanted to
be able to see my family one more time.
I knew that I physically couldn't defend myself. I'm a small
woman. I had never been in a fight in my life. There's a man on my
chest. There's a knife to my throat. I can smell alcohol on his breath.
I had no idea if he was under the influence of drugs, and I knew better
than to try to physically defend myself. But, this much I knew. I knew
I was smart. I knew that if I paid attention and I made a plan, that I
had a chance to survive, and that became the thing that drove me over
the next half an hour.
There's, I'm sure, some of you young women in this audience
today that have been a victim of rape. I'm sure of it because I know
the statistics. And one of the hardest things to do when this is
happening to you is the stay present. What you want to do is leave. So,
I willed myself to stay there in my body as he assaulted me. But, I
began to try to pay attention. I thought to myself, I'm going to
survive this, and when I survive it, I'm going to be able to take
everything that I remember about your face, and I'm going to tell the
police. And they're going to find you, and they're going to convict
you. And you're going to spend the rest of your life in prison, and
this is what kept me there, present focused.
I began to study this face when I could glimpse at it, and I
decided I needed to know his eyes. What were they shaped like? What
about his nose? Was it large, was it small? What about his teeth? Were
there any missing? Was there a tattoo, was there a scar? What about his
hairline? Listen to his voice, Jennifer, pay attention. Maybe he would
say something that would give me a clue.
As the next 15 minutes went by, he tried to come up and kiss
me, and it revolted me so badly, I turned my head to the side in an
effort to not throw up. And he said to me, "Relax, I'm not going to
hurt you." And I don't know why I've often said this, I believe that
God was very present with me at this moment, because I looked at him
and said "I'm afraid of knives. If you'll get off of me and take your
knife and go down the front steps of my apartment and drop the knife on
my car and I can hear it, I'll let you come back in."
And he believed me. Because I knew my first job was to get him
off of me, and he did, and I quickly wrapped a blanket around myself
and actually stood close enough to him to study how tall he was. I knew
that was going to be important. I'd seen enough police shows, you know,
how old is he, how tall is he, how much do you think he weighed? These
were important details and I needed to know them. How long were his
arms? Were his feet pigeon-toed or duck-footed? What kind of shoes was
he wearing? What kind of pants did he have on? Every detail mattered.
Everything mattered to me. My life depended on this.
He didn't take the knife down the front steps, he simply
pretended to drop it out the front door, and grabbed my arm and said
"Let's go." I wasn't going back in there. I mean, I knew that he would
have to kill me in that hallway. There was no way I was going back in
that room, so I told him I had to go to the bathroom, could I please go
to the bathroom? And he said, "Yeah, make it quick," and as I went into
the room, I turned the light on, and I looked at him just a moment, a
second. And he told me to turn it off, but it was just enough light. I
knew they were going to ask me, what was the conditions of light.
As I went in the bathroom, I began to pray. What am I going to
do? How am I going to get out of this? Then I remembered he had told me
he had come through my kitchen. And I realized, his way into my
apartment was going to be my way out. As I came out of the bathroom, I
said "I'm really thirsty. Could I get a drink of water first?" And he
said, "Yeah, make me a Seagram's and we'll have a party." He bent down
and turned on my stereo, and at that moment a light emanated, a blue
light. But, again, it was light. It was a profile. It was important.
And I went into the kitchen, I turned my light on knowing that
light was now my friend. It would give me space. It would give me
distance. It would give me an extra second, two seconds of a lead.
And I began to make noises in my kitchen with ice and water and
cabinets and drawers. I slowly opened up my door and I began to run.
And I went right next door to a neighbor, thinking this is good. This
is next door, not knowing he wasn't at home. As I looked over my
shoulder, he was coming out after me.
And I took off through the neighborhood. I didn't know where I
was going to go. I had no shoes on. I had nothing but a blanket. It's
now starting to rain. And it's 3:30 in the morning. Not a good plan.
So, I saw a light. Again, light became very important to me
that night. I ran to a carport. Didn't know who lived there. Had no
idea who owned the home, but it was a light. And I thought to myself if
he kills me, I'll be under a light. Maybe somebody will see it.
And I began to pound on the door. The man that owned the house
came around the corner. Now, it's 3:30 in the morning you can imagine
you're living in your home. Your children are there. And there's a
woman at your door in a blanket, screaming, please let me in. I've just
been raped and he's after me.
How frightened could you have been? He of course screamed and
his wife came around the corner and say, oh my God, this is a student
at the school. I recognize her. Let her in. I fainted.
He began to circle the house. We could see him through the
window until the sirens came and then he took off. The dogs chased him,
the police chased him, but they lost his scent. When they came to me at
the house and they said, do you think you got a good look at your
assailant. I said yes I do.
An African-American young male, light complexion, close cropped
hair with a pencil thin moustache, smaller nose, but almond shaped
eyes. He's 20, 22, 23 years old, about 175, 185 pounds, five foot 11,
maybe six foot, six foot one. He's got on a navy shirt with white
stripes on the sleeves and dark fatigue pants I think with canvas boat
He had white gloves on his hand. It was clear. I knew what he
looked like. I went to the hospital. My body had become the crime scene
and they needed to collect evidence off of my body and you can imagine
the humiliation that comes from that to now have to submit to 12
different combings and pluckings and swabs.
But, I heard a woman crying right down the hall from me. It was
a cry that I knew very well, because it was a broken, pained, scarred
cry. And I asked the detective, the woman who's crying, who is that and
what's wrong, what happened to her?
He said, she's just been raped. Then I said, was it the same
man who raped me and he said yes. Her life was over. Who I had gone to
bed as, Jennifer Thompson, in the wee hours of July 28 was no longer
there. Everything I had planned was gone, my spirit, my soul was
broken. I hated him with a blind hate.
If I could have killed him that night, I would have shot him in
the head and walked away smiling. That's how much I hated him. So, I
was very, very eager to help the police. I went to the police station
and I gave my description. And it was very clear that I had gotten such
a good look at him that I could do a composite sketch.
So, sitting with a detective, with an Identi-Kit, I begin to
put together the face of this horrible human being. I picked out his
eyes out of a series of 50 eyes. Picked out his nose out of 50 noses
and hairlines and chins and eyelashes and eyebrows and bridges of your
nose and your ears and your cheeks and everything.
And they looked at me and said, does this look like the man who
attacked you and I said, yes it does. And it ran in the newspaper.
I was frightened that he was still out there. He knew my name.
He had read my driver's license. I was scared. The sooner they picked
him up, the better.
But, a phone call came into the police department. One very
important phone call from a woman who said, you know, that composite
sketch looks like somebody I know by the name of Ronald Cotton.
As a matter of fact, I think Ronald Cotton was seen on a
bicycle around 3:00 in the morning around Brookwood Garden
Condominiums. And you know what, he was wearing a navy blue shirt with
white stripes on the sleeves and white gloves and dark pants and boat
It was him. It was my attacker. Ronald had had some brushes
with the law. He had been in and out of some trouble and when they
called me on August 1st to come down to the police station to do a
photo lineup I was more than eager. I wanted to do this.
So, I was taken into a room and the detective looked at me and
said, "Now, Jennifer we're going to show a series of six photographs.
Take your time. Do no feel compelled to choose anyone. He may or may
not be in there." But come on, I'm 22. I'm in a police department. One
of these six is him.
It's my job to find him. I was a 4.0 student. I could do this
test and I could pass it. And it knew I could. And one of them was him.
And I held up the photograph and I said, "This is him."
"Are you sure?"
"Good job, Jennifer. We thought that was him."
I had passed the test. I was a good witness. Several days later,
I was asked to do a physical lineup. Again, I was given the same
instructions. "Jennifer, we're going to have seven men come in front of
you. They're going to take three steps forward, three steps back. They
are going to turn to the right. They are going to turn to the left.
They are going to say a few lines that you remember your attacker
saying. Don't feel compelled to choose anybody. He may or may not be in
But again, I know it's my job to find him. So, I was taken into
an abandoned school house, into a school room that had a table between
me and the seven men. No windows, no mirrors, just me and the seven
men. And I was scared.
See, he knew my name. He knew where I lived. He knew what I
looked like. He was looking at me now in broad daylight. I had to find
him. And it was number five.
"It's number five." It was Ronald Cotton.
"Good job, Jennifer. That's the same person you picked out of the photo lineup."
I did it. I mean, I did it for me. I did it for the second
victim who had not gotten a good look at him. She was my mother's age.
She had screamed. She had fought. He had punched her, bitten her,
slapped her, tried to smother her with a pillow. I was carrying this
for me, for her, for you, for you, and for you.
It was important. I wanted him to go to prison forever. So, I
waited months until the trial. State vs. Cotton in January of 1985. It
was two weeks of my life. It was two days on the stand, having to tell
every disgusting, horrific thing he had done to me, while my mother and
It was humiliating. It was awful. I was asked ridiculous
questions from the defense attorney. I was having to tell very detailed
over and over and over descriptions. I was determined I was going to do
Two weeks later, 45 minutes the jury deliberated and found
Ronald Cotton guilty, first degree rape, first degree sexual event,
first degree breaking and entering and Ronald Cotton received life and
54 years. And ladies and gentlemen, it was the happiest day of my life.
I went back to the DA's office and we had champagne. And we
toasted to justice, to justice working. Here's to you, Jennifer,
justice worked. Go and live a good life. Now you can move on.
And I tried. I graduated. I didn't graduate summa cum laude, but I graduated with a 3.89.
Didn't marry my fiance, we just couldn't weather the storms of a
sexual assault, but I married another man a few years later. And life
began to take on some type of a pattern and normalcy for me, until 1987
when the appellate court overturned the decision. And we had to go back
See they thought that it was really important that the second
victim had not gotten a good look at him and could not make an
identification. And if she couldn't, perhaps I had made a mistake. But,
you don't forget the face of the person who destroyed your life. Ever.
So, it was OK, we could go back to court. This time we were
going to try both cases. And fortunately, the second victim now
remembered, "It was Ronald Cotton, I remember now. It's clearer. I was
just scared, I was frightened, but I remember very clearly it's Ronald
Cotton, and I am willing to put my hand on the Bible and swear to
So, we went back to court. Oddly enough, Ronald had said that
somebody had been bragging that he had committed the crime that Ronald
was serving time for, and he was innocent, and this guy was guilty, and
blah, blah, blah. It's what they all say in prison.
I really wasn't concerned. So, under voir dire, they brought
this mystery man - Bobby Poole - in, that had supposedly confessed to
the crime. And they asked me, "Do you recognize this man in front of
you, Mr. Bobby Poole?" And I said "No, sir, I've never seen him before
in my life."
"Do you see the man in the courtroom today that raped you?" And
I said, "Yes, he's sitting at the defense table. His name is Ronald
Cotton." And that's all they needed to hear. Ronald Cotton was
convicted, two first degree rapes, two first degree breaking and
enterings, and two first degree sexual assaults. Ronald Cotton received
two life sentences and 35 years.
And again, we toasted with champagne, because the system
worked. That's the way it's supposed to be. Ronald Cotton would never
get out of prison. He was never going to spend another holiday with his
family. He was never going to get married. He was never going to have
children, and that was what he deserved. Well, I got married in 1988. I
got pregnant in 1989. I gave birth to triplets in the spring of 1990 -
two little girls and a boy.
And you can only imagine that that was my blessing. That was my
gift from God because I was good person. And I would tuck my babies in
at night and sing to them a song and I would pray a prayer for their
safety and their health for them to grow up and be good, strong people.
And then I would end my prayer with, "I pray that Ronald Cotton
is killed today in prison. But, before he leaves this earth to Hell,
let him know the horror of what that night was for me. Let him
experience that incredible loss of control and power, and then I want
him to die."
Every night I prayed this prayer; it was important.
Until the spring of 1995 - The triplets were now five, and I was
a busy mom, as you can imagine. My life revolved around pounds and
pounds and pounds of laundry and Band-aids, and preschool, and peanut
butter and jelly, and toys and toys and toys.
And I got a call from Detective Gauldin and the assistant
district attorney of Alamance County. They needed to talk to me. "See,
Jennifer, there's this thing called DNA. You ever heard of it?"
Well, yeah, the O.J. Simpson case was everywhere. Yeah, I knew
what that was." "Well, Ronald is still maintaining his innocence, but
Jennifer, we know - he wants a DNA test run, though. But, we know what
the results are going to show. The problem is, your blood sample has
disintegrated from the rape kit from all these years, and we'll need a
new blood sample."
And I said, "You know what? Let's go do it right now." I knew
what it was going to show. I did not have time to go to court. I did
not have time to go through the court system again. Take this blood
sample, run it to the SBI lab, and let's be done with this.
And I didn't really think about it a whole lot until June of
1995, a few months later, when I got another phone call that they
needed to come and see me again. This time, standing in my kitchen,
they looked at me and they said, "We were wrong. It wasn't Ronald
Cotton's DNA. It belonged to Bobby Poole."
And so I thought, if I could be wrong about something like
that, what else am I wrong about? Maybe Morgan, Blake, and Brittany
really aren't my kids. Maybe they were swapped at birth. Or maybe this
God that I've prayed to all my life is really not there. So, what else
in my life is wrong?
It was like somebody took my life like a snow globe and shook
it, and then laid it down said, "Here's your life, and you get to move
in it. And this is how you get to live."
I'd love to be able to tell you all that I was a brave and
courageous woman that day, and I went and met Ronald in the courtroom
as he was exonerated, or I immediately went and asked Ronald for
forgiveness, but I didn't, because frankly, I was afraid.
I was afraid because I knew that Ronald had to hate me, and he
was seeking revenge and retaliation, because I would. I would hate you
if 11 years of my life had been taken away from me. See, I was 22 when
I was raped. Ronald Cotton was 22. I'm 33. Ronald Cotton's 33. Dang,
that's a third of his life, and I can't give it back. And there's
nothing I can say or do that's going to make up for it.
But, I was afraid, and over the next year, I began to suffocate
and die of shame and guilt, fear. And then that summer a man by the
name of Ben Loeterman came to see me. He sat with me, and he said,
"Jennifer, I'm going to do a documentary about the fallibility of
eyewitness identification, and I wanted to know if you would tell your
story in front of a million, jillion people."
And I said, "No.-uh. No. No, I'm not going to do that." And he said
"Well, Ronald's going to tell his story." And I thought, well, then
who's going to tell mine? And how accurate will they be? And will they
make me look like an idiot and a bad person? And so, "OK, tell you
what. I'll do this if Ronald Cotton and I do not meet each other at
all." Because I knew behind every alley and every corner, he was
waiting to kill me. And they said, "OK, we respect that."
over the next six months, we began to put together what Jennifer saw.
And they would come to my house and they would go, "Oh, we had lunch
with Ron," and "We hung out with Ron, and he's so nice. So, quiet and
gentle and sweet." And I thought, it's a setup.
He's going to kill me, and I know it. And I didn't want to see him, and
I didn't. I didn't; and it aired on February 27th, 1997, and I couldn't
watch it. I was too afraid. So, the next morning I sat by myself in my
den, and I see myself being interviewed, and the last thing I say is,
"I know Ronald Cotton is not my rapist, but I cannot get him out of my
nightmares. He's still in my memory."
when I heard that, I realized, it's wrong. Maybe Bobby Poole's face
should be there, I don't know. But, not Ronald's. And how do I remove
that? I have to see him. I have to talk to him. I needed to know Ron
And so, on April 4th of 1997, in a small church about a mile
and half from where I had been raped, I waited for Ronald. I had gone
to my minister prior to that meeting and said, "I don't know what to
say. I don't know what to call him. I mean, my God." And he said, "You
know what, you're going to get the words. They're just going to
And I thought, that's easy for you to say, because you're going
to be back in Winston-Salem, and I'm going to be sitting in a church in
But, I sat in this church, and when I saw his truck pull up outside the
window, what really, really struck me was when he went to open the door
for his wife. His wife is about 5'1." I'm 5'1." And I realized, Ronald
was too tall. He could not have been my rapist. He was just too tall.
How had I made that mistake?
came around the corner and stood in front of me, and I couldn't
physically get out of the chair, and I started to cry. And I looked at
Ronald, and I said "Ronald, if I spent every moment of every day of
every week of every month for the rest of my life telling you how sorry
I am for what happened, could you ever forgive me?"
And Ronald Cotton, with all the grace and mercy and love and
kindness and humility in the world, took my hands, and with tears in
his eyes, said "I forgave you years ago. I'm not angry at you. I want
you to be happy, and I want to be happy. And I want you to live a good
life, and I want to live a good life. And don't look over your
shoulders thinking I'm going to be there to hurt you. It will not be
Over the next two hours, I got to know Ronald, Ronald the man.
What he had endured, what he had suffered. What had happened to the two
of us. How a system had failed us. How Bobby Poole had victimized us.
And not only us, but the seven other women that were raped that summer
while Ronald was awaiting trial.
We ended up that meeting in each other's arms in the parking
lot. We vowed nothing would ever come between us ever again. And it's
not. For the next few years, Ronald and I began to form a relationship,
a friendship, a trust in each other. Ronald became my teacher, my
healer, the one person that could take me to a place where I could
forgive Bobby Poole. Not because Bobby Poole deserved it, not because
Bobby Poole asked me to forgive him, but because had I not forgiven him
I would have been trapped in my own personal prison forever.
Ronald taught me that love and hate don't live in the same
human heart. They can't coexist. That the only way that you can heal is
to lay it down. I couldn't have done it without Ronald. He's been my
teacher for the last 13, 14 years. We've written a book together. We
travel together. Every conversation on the phone ends with I love you,
I love you too. He is my best friend. So, at this point I'd like for
you all to meet my friend, Ronald Cotton.
Hi, how is everybody today? It's a pleasure to be here. I'm kind of
tired. I didn't get much sleep, but I decided I wanted to take the town
and do a little karaoke last night, but I managed to do... Anyway, I'm
Ronald Cotton and my story began on August 1, 1984. I had been out, me
and my girlfriend and her family, in another part of North Carolina,
Orange County. It was hot that morning, and I told them, "Just take me
home." I took my shirt off, threw it on my shoulder and I said, "Well,
I can't drive my car because the transmission's out." The only thing I
had to travel was a bicycle. For me, it got me around where I needed to
go and back.
let me out, I kissed her. I proceeded to the apartment I was living in
at the time. My mother's boyfriend was standing outside. He said,
"Ron." I said, "Yeah." He said, "The cops are looking for you." I said,
"For what?" He said, "For a rape." I said, "Man, I hadn't done nothing
like that." He said, "Well, they came here, searched the apartment,
took a pair of your shoes, your sister's shoes, and your mother's
shoes." I said, "Really?" He said, "Yeah. Well, you ought to go down
there and try to get this matter taken care of." So I said, "Well, I'm
not riding no bicycle to no police department."
I said, "Well, I'll just go over and ask the neighbor, can I borrow her
car." I noticed she was outside sweeping her porch. I walked over and I
said, "Excuse me, Patricia." She said, "Yeah." I said, "You remember
that crime that took place in the community about two weeks ago?" She
said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, now they have me as a prime suspect in
this trial, this case going on. I'd like to know if I can borrow your
car to go down and try to get this matter taken care of." She said,
"Sure. Make sure you have my car back before three o'clock because I
have to go to work." I said, "OK. Well, or else I'll get one of my
sisters to drive for me." I had eight sisters and four brothers. I
said, "Well, I'll just ask Tooty would she go."
said, "Tooty, would come and go with me?" And she said, "What." And I
said, "Well, you know the cops are looking for me for a crime I didn't
commit. Therefore, I want you to drive the car as I read this paper and
find out what's going on." So, we got in the car, headed to the police
department. I said, "I'd like for you to make one stop for me." She
said, "What?" I said, "Let's go over to my girlfriends house and find
out if she knows what's going on."
When we arrived there she came running to the car crying,
"Ronnie, Ronnie, the cops are looking for you for a rape and I know you
didn't do that." I said, "No baby, I didn't have to do anything like
that. I'm going to the police department." She said, "I'm going to ride
along." So she hopped in the car with us. We proceeded on to the police
As we arrived in the parking lot, looks up at the building,
notice a bunch of officers looking out the window. They recognized me
and they come running to the door. As I got ready to open the door the
detective met me, identified himself. I told him who I were and he
said, "Yeah, we know." I said, "Well, I heard you all have some serious
charges against me that I did not commit. That's why I'm coming here,
to find out what's going on." He said, "Sure, come upstairs."
So, we go upstairs in a room. He interrogated me, he offered me
a cigarette, soft drink. I said, "Sure, give it here." I smoked a
cigarette, accepted a drink. You see that in movies and on TV nowadays.
So, I went ahead on and I told them where I was at, I thought. I didn't
keep up with my weekends, partying. I loved to party. I partied every
weekend, you know, going to the bars and clubs, and getting my groove
They swore up and down I was telling a lie. I said, "Officer,
you're wrong. I did not commit this crime upon Ms. Thompson." He said,
"Well, are these your shoes?" He presented an evidence bag, and I said,
"Well, they look like my shoes, but they weren't in that condition."
They had taken my shoes and cut them from the toe to heel, like they
filleted them. I said, "No. My shoes wasn't like that." He said, "Well,
you see this piece of foam cushion?" I said, "Sure." He said, "Well
this was found in Ms. Thompson's apartment." I said, "Really? Well, if
it did, they [inaudible 41:38] that shoe and put it there because I
don't know Jennifer. I haven't been in her apartment. You have the
wrong guy." They said, "No, Mr. Cotton. We have your ass." I said,
He said, "Well, you see this flashlight?" I said, "Yes." He
said, "This is the flashlight he took and held in the other lady's face
while you raped her." I said, "No. I had a flash like that, but it
wasn't mine. It was a friend of mine." He said, "Well, we have your ass
Mr. Cotton. You think you're mister big stuff going around town
screwing white women, but we have your ass." I said, "Well, you can say
what you want to say. I know what you're saying from what you're doing
here." He said, "Officer, come and lock him up."
A uniformed officer comes in and takes me, fingerprint me,
photograph me, handcuff me, put me in a cruiser and take me to the
Alamance County Jail. Put me on a $150,000 bond. I'm sitting in my cell
trying to figure out what's going on. What did I do to deserve such? As
time went by, my parents had come to visit me, bringing me personal
hygiene things that I needed. I go to court, try to get a bond
reduction. The judge refused and jacked my bond up 100,000 on each
account. So now, I'm setting in a $450,000 bond. I said, "Well, you
know, you just set a millionaire bond for me. I can't make it. I'm a
poor man." I was struggling, trying to survive.
I sit in jail until my attorneys come over. He told me, "Ron, I
was out to lunch the other day. I ran into the district attorney. He
said he has a plea bargain for you." I said, "What?" He said, "A life
sentence." I said, "No, man. I'm not going for that. I was born at
night, but not last night. You tell that district attorney that he got
to get that judge and that jury together because, it was like, we going
to war. I'm not tolerating, I'm not going to set up nothing like that.
Which I wouldn't have set up no plea bargain anyway. I'm an innocent
I went to trial and got found guilty. The judge, he said, "Mr.
Cotton, stand up. Do you have anything to say to the court?" I said,
"Yes, your honor. Can I have your permission to sing this song?" I used
to do a lot of writing, poems and whatnot. So, I composed a poem. I
switched the words around to a gospel song and that's the song that I
sung for the judge and the court, whoever ears that was opened to
It was a poem titled "Until You Come Back." My girl, you know,
she was out in the world. We had become to be engaged, but since this
incident happened, there wasn't going to be no wedding. So, I was just
expressing myself "Until she come into my life." But, I switched it and
said until God came into my life, because that's what I needed. I
needed His hand to see me through.
But the judge, he handed me down a life sentence that day. I
went back to the county jail. The guys and ladies in there that knew me
- or became to know me as I was in there for the year that I were -
they said, "Cotton, what happened?" I said, "I was found guilty. The
type of sentence you get - I received a life sentence."
"Well, you don't act like it." I was smiling. I was smiling to
keep from crying because I was hurting inside. My family, my loved
ones, I knew I was going down the river for a crime I didn't commit.
What was I supposed to do, jump for joy?
No, not me. My hair grew so long, plaited it up. I didn't have
no comb. And the only thing I had to use to comb my hair was with a
fork that I used to eat my breakfast with.
I went back to court the very next day. The judge sentenced me
to 54 years. I went back to jail. Called my family. There wasn't
anything they could do. They gave their support and showed it. You
never know but I said, well here we go.
I wrote a letter to the head jailer and I told him, "I've been
locked up for a crime I did not commit. I've been tried, found guilty,
been sentenced. I said next time I need to do is go on to the
penitentiary." I said, "Look if you don't get me out of this jail, I'm
going to start tearing it apart." I meant that I was tense, frustrated.
I got into a fight in jail from laying in there.
They tried to offer me a plea bargain for something I didn't
do. And I said I can't take it no more. So, things were building up
inside. So, the next morning the deputy sheriff comes to my cell. He
said, "Cotton pack your stuff. You are going to prison."
I got dressed, grabbed my belongings, handcuffed, shackled, put
in a special wagon and got on the interstate to the penitentiary at
about 90 miles per hour. And on the radio someone was playing Michael
Bolton, "Tell me how I'm going to live without you.'
It was rough. I'll tell you.[laughter]
I started taking my hair lose as we was traveling down the highway with
a fork that is, no comb. But, I managed to get it loose and as we
arrived at the penitentiary I noticed the officer put his gun in a
little box and I grabbed my belongings and took me inside, as the gate
they rambled through my belongings looking for contraband and then gave
me a set of sheets and clothing. I guess you call it a penitentiary
uniform. So, I proceeded on and went to my dorm with another 21 other
inmates. They assigned me a bunk.
I went in and made it up. The guys coming around, "What you in
here for?" But, as I was walking, they were hollering "fresh meat,
fresh meat." And I'm looking at them, fear I buried, but let them know,
"Whatever." I went on and tried to get settled in. I was going through
the process of becoming an inmate again.
I was finishing up my process and as I was going through the
chow every day I was like a little string bean, couldn't grow no facial
hair. And guys looking at me like, "You're a sexy guy. What's your
I told them I don't play those games. So, they kept telling me,
well, we're going to fatten you up. Put a pile of food on my plate. I
knew what kind of games they were trying, but it wasn't going to work.
So, they told me the guys in the dorm, "Cotton, whenever you get a job,
don't go in the kitchen. The guys say they're going to rape you."
I said, well, "They can talk that talk." I said it's easier
said, but as I finished my process, they offered me a job. And they
said, "Where would you like to work? The sign plant or the kitchen?"
I said, "I want to go to the kitchen." I chose that job. They
gave me my whites. I went to work at 4:00 in the morning. And I had to
go in a little early to prepare the food for the people in the
And this guy was very muscular, from out of New York. I never
knew his name and never cared to. I just wasn't going to play his game.
One morning I went in and he came over to my table, put his plate of
food and sat down. He looked at me, "What's up?"
I said, "You need to get up." So, I told him take his tray and
go somewhere else. I wasn't playing those games. So, we exchanged a few
words and we about had a confrontation. We got separated before we
really got into it, so after that, I didn't have any more problems with
And by that time as time went on, I moved up in the kitchen to
become the dietician in the kitchen. There was another guy named
Kenneth Herman. He's been in like 10 years for rape and crime. He
didn't call me by my name. He always called me Red, because of my skin
I said, "Well, my name is not Red. My name is Cotton." I said,
"You can't call me by my name, let my name taste like crap in your
So he's been walking around the prison unit bumping his gums
talking junk. I tried ignoring him. I get on the speed bag, mighty bag,
working out my frustrations that had been building up during my
duration in prison.
So, I decided I wanted to confront this guy and he tell me, get
out of his face or he's going to kill me. So, I said, "You want to
fight." And we fought. I broke his jaw. I went into segregation for 30
days and come out and apologized.
But, before that I recognized another inmate being escorted
into the prison and I glanced up at him and I said he looks familiar.
So, I go to my dorm. And I had the drawing of a composite sketch of the
crime, the guy from Jennifer's. And I compared it with him and I saw
So, two days later I approached him out in the population. I said, "Excuse me, where are you from?"
He said, "Burlington."
I said, "I am, too. You kind of resemble the drawing, the sketch
of a crime that they have out that I have sort of been the suspect of."
I said, "You commit the crime?"
He said, "No," but this guy tells me that come back later
apologize right in the front. He said Poole told me, confessed that you
serving time for a crime he committed. So, that night right about 3:00,
I gets up out of my bunk and I get my legal pad and go to the table.
I start writing my attorney, informing him what had been
brought to my attention. And by then, Poole had been transferred to
another unit. But, before he was transferred, my father came to visit
me and I told my father, I said, "There's a guy on this camp committed
the crime of which I'm in prison for." I said, "I want to kill him.
He's going around bragging."
My father said, "Ron, you tell me you're innocent. I believe
you are innocent. But, if you take this man's life you can be guilty
this way. You are going to spend the rest of your life." I mean, I had
made a weapon, like this mic here and I slept with it in my chest,
holding my hand on it every night after I got off work took a shower
and laid down on my bunk. I actually told this guy because he slept in
the same dorm as I.
Ad when he walked by my bunk, I looked at him. I told him, "Man, when I get an opportunity you're mine."
And by thinking about what my father told me, he said just let
his conscience eat him he will eventually confess. But, that wasn't
good enough. He's in prison with life and 30 years while he pled guilty
to other rapes. And I couldn't find it very easy to deal with,
accepting him knowing that he's in there bragging about this and here I
am an innocent man, and I'm suffering being away from my family when I
shouldn't have been.
And I was telling my caseworker; she knows about the situation.
The caseworker tells me well, it's not my problem. He said my job is to
keep you here not to let you go. That's what they get paid for. So,
eventually they shipped this guy out to another unit. I took that
weapon and dropped it down an open drain in the bathroom and let it
rattle until it hit the bottom.
I could have easily sold it for $30 or $40, ate many Moon Pies
off of it, but it wasn't worth it. [laughs] They transferred me a year
alter to this next unit that this guy was on. He was always watching me
from a distance. Prison guards getting us confused, calling me, him;
and it irritate me very bad. I told them, "Look my name is not Poole.
My name is Cotton."
So, that's what everybody called me, Cotton. But, when they did I always tell them 100%, polyester is my cousin.
So they tried to put me in the same side of the prison this guy was on.
And I went to the lieutenant and I said, "Look, lieutenant, this guy
Poole over here in the school side. He was a ground maintenance worker.
I said, he has been in prison here for a crime I didn't commit."
said, "I heard that you all are going to try to transfer me over on
that side." I said, "But, I'm informing you ahead of time that if you
put me on that side, I'm not going to be responsible for what happens."
They said, "Well, what do you mean?"
I said, "The guy, he committed the crime. I'm serving his time.
If I be put on the same side with him, it's not going to be a pretty
picture that's being painted."
He listened and he said, "Well, I'll just keep you over there."
And by then, he was walking around the unit and I'm working out
on the bags, trying to get this frustration and tension out of me.
Hitting the bags with no gloves, hands bleeding. Guy that's standing
around, "Cotton, your hand is bleeding." I didn't care, it's just that
frustration and tension built up that I took out on the bag instead of
taking it out on other inmates.
I got evidence to prove him, but I wasn't no bad guy. I wasn't
a good guy either. I was just on the down low. I was like a time bomb
walking around. If anybody lit it, I'd be on them like roaches on a
meat skin. I'm sorry to say that, but that's just the way it was.
I just went head on, I was transferred to the Hornet County
Unit, I stayed there a year. They took me to the classification
committee and said, "Mr. Cotton, you've been recommended to be
transferred to Tennessee." I said, "But what if I refuse to go?" "We're
going to shackle you, put you on a plane, you're going anyway." So I
thought about it. I said, "Well, I volunteered to accept that
I went to the Raleigh-Durham National Airport and was shackled
around my waist and legs, and I looked up at the plane. It said Express
One. I said, "Well, I guess I'm going one way." And so I get on the
plane and that's where I went, the place in Tennessee for the last
year. And then the OJ case came available. It wasn't available to me,
but DNA came into existence.
So, I was walking by and noticed that they were talking about
DNA to blood and it caught my eye and I went to my locker and got my
legal note and started taking notes on it. So, I wrote my attorney and
said, "Well, I had this done in my case." Wrote the Court of Appeals
and mentioned it to them, and they said, "Well, we're going to grant
this request and if the results come back saying anything different,
that's where you're going to spend the rest of your life."
By then my family, they were constantly in contact. Everybody
was waiting because it was just a waiting game after that. Any time you
get convicted, in prison, it's nothing but a waiting game. Many, many
years and you're somebody with nothing but tears running down your
face. So, finally, they did the testing and my attorney wrote me and
said, "Well, you're coming back to court."
The Warden came in his office that night. I went in and he
said, "Mr. Cotton, you're going home in the morning. I'd like for you
to tell me these prison guards who are bringing drugs in." I said,
"Well, that's not my job. I'm not going to be your snitch." Even though
I did know, and he's like, "That does happen." But, I wasn't going to
spill the beans.
So, he got mad at me, told the officer to take him back to his
dorm. So, I went back to my dorm. I was kind of excited because I had
told him - I thought he was pulling my leg. I said, "Please don't pull
my leg, because my leg is already long enough."
And I go by I saw it. I had my own little business in prison. I had the
canteen help guys working for me. Sending potato chips, soup, whatever
you name. Candy bars, but I started that business for $5 and it grew.
It don't take long, I couldn't depend on my family to support me. I was
in prison without a life sentence, 54 years. And I figure I'm not going
anywhere, I'll probably be an old man, so I've got to survive.
the next morning, the prison guards came and called my name and said,
"Pack your stuff, you're leaving." So, I started handing out radios,
candy bars, potato chips...
... out of money lists that people owed me. So, I spotted this one guy
that I knew that didn't get no family support. I walked up to him, his
name was Blair. I said, "Excuse me, Blair." I said, "Look, here's a
list of people who owe me money." I said, "I'm going to leave it with
you." I said, "Collect if you can. If you don't, don't get in no
trouble." He shook my hand, he said, "Thank you, Cotton, thank you."
they shackle hand cuffed me, put me in a cruiser and down through
Tennessee we went. And the Corrections Officer said, "Mr. Cotton, when
was the last time you ate at McDonald's?" I said... So, you didn't
So, anyway, he said, "We're going to let you eat lunch at McDonald's
here." So, they took me out of the car, sitting at a table and asked
me, "What number?" I said, "What number? Well, I was number five in the
line up, but what number are you talking about?"[laughter]
And he said, "The meal." I said, "Well, just a cheeseburger, hamburger,
fries would be good enough to me. I don't know the number." And so
that's what they did, they went and brought my fries and burger and
drink, I was sitting outside at the table. I was eating and I said,
"That's pretty good." I said, "OK," so I wiped my mouth, got my hands
real good and they got back in the car and took me down the interstate
and took me to Alamance County Courthouse, they didn't know which one,
so we were riding around like a donut[laughter].
Like you go to race a car, round and round. They said, "Which one?" I
said, "I don't know." So, I noticed this officer standing along side
the road. I said, "Ask him." So, they pulled over and said, "We have an
inmate from the Prison Department come back for trial. We don't know
which court to go to." And they directed me to the right one.
go inside and get my belongings out and all the news media vehicles
were there outside. So, I'm standing back there in the waiting room,
waiting, handcuffs on, kitchen clothes and the lady jailer was right
there. And the lawyer said, "Well, you can take the handcuffs off of
him now." She said, "No, he's still in Department of Corrections
custody. I'm Alamance County." So, I'm looking at her.
I'm ready to get these things off of me. But, she wouldn't so the
judge, he comes out and goes back and said, "I'll give you a direct
order to take those cuffs off of Mr. Cotton. He's not in Department of
Corrections any longer." So, she took the handcuffs off and brought me
some civilian clothes, a black pair of jeans and a burgundy shirt,
which is hanging in my closet right today.[laughter]
And every time I look in that closet, it's a reminder. The first set of
clothes you had. And I'm going to keep them forever and a day. But, I
went into court, my attorneys and their family were there, as well as
mine. And the D.A. and my attorney conversed with one another and the
judge called the charges out and said, "Mr. Cotton, the charges against
you have been dismissed. You're a free man, you can go home."
everybody embraced one another, and crying and so after that was over,
I walked back outside with my family walking behind me. My nephews
carrying my belongings and I walked outside the courthouse, looked up
into the sky, threw my arms up and said, "Lord, where do I go from
here? I do not know." It's like a baby they tossed out into the world.
I had to learn to crawl before I walked.
But, it was a good feeling, I went home, took me a good, hot
shower, me and my sister and my nephew loaded up the car and went to
Golden Corral. And I tell you, I ate like eating going out of style.
I really did. But, ever since then, I've been married, have a daughter,
she's 10, be 11 soon. And meeting Jennifer and her family, it's been a
pleasure. It's just like we are all family, like Sisters Sledge said,
We Are Family. That's the way it is. It's like when you're in school,
you're around each other so much, you feel like you all become family,
just in a different way. And that is my story, and I thank you all. [applause].
Does anyone have any questions that they're dying to ask these two remarkable people?
Here's one of them.
I wanted to ask Mr. Cotton, his billing and his take on the first time
that he met Jennifer at those places where she described. What were you
thinking when you were going in there with the media for the first
Well, to me I was thinking, I said, "Well, I don't know what she is
going to say. I don't know what I'm going to say. I'm going to just
take it as it comes to me. And I saw that she was very nervous, and
that she really wasn't sure. And I said, well I just feel that she's
going to say the right thing.
didn't go in there, I didn't have any retaliation against her by what
so ever. And I just accepted what she had to say because I had forgiven
her many, many years ago. Actually, my second year in prison I forgave
Jennifer. I was sitting on my bunk, with my legs straddle, writing
letters. A vision came over me, of a female and that day was when I
prayed to the Lord to give me the strength, wisdom and knowledge, too.
I forgive Jennifer for what has happened. She's human. She's a
lovely woman, a lovely family. And you know, you just can't go through
life harboring grudges and holding, thinking about retaliation.
If I had to deal with a lot of people what I've done
themselves, I've won't admitted to, I wouldn't be here before you right
today. I would be still in prison. I would have committed another
crime, that I did. The other I didn't.
You told the story with such great detail. And concentrated so much on
being able to identify your assailant. But, then it wasn't the right
guy. Do you feel like you were pressured by the detectives to get the
guy and again, I really heard [inaudible 01:03:16] point about I really
wanted to do the right thing.
Do you feel like you got pressured?
I don't really think I was pressured, necessarily. The pressure was
probably mine. I think more than anything what happened was memory. And
since that time I've been able to actually learn a lot about how human
memory really works, as opposed to how we think it works.
I realize was the first mistake that was made was that composite
sketch. And although the composite sketch if you go online on our
website, in the book you can see the composite sketch looks eerily like
Bobby Pool. The problem was the Bobby Poole was not in that photo
And we know now that when a witness or a victim does these
composites, well the composite sketch which leads to the photo lineup.
If the suspect is not in there, if the person is not in there, what we
tend to do is to pick the next best person. We don't know we're doing
that, but that's exactly what happened. Bobby Poole was not in that
photographic lineup. Ronald Cotton was the closest resemblance to my
The problem was my memory now, the last visual I had is a
composite sketch. By the time I went to the physical lineup my last
visual I have, which is very subconscious that I'm drawing from, is a
And unbeknownst to me, consciously I'm searching my memory
bank. And instead of pulling my memory of my attacker I'm pulling the
memory of that photo, which was Ronald Cotton. So, by the time I got to
the trial, Ronald had become the rapist.
There were lots of mistakes that were made. They weren't done
consciously. Ronald's photograph that I was looking at was taken in
1981. It was not a 1984 photograph. The reason for that was because in
1984, Ronald had a much thicker hair. And in 1981 he had a close
cropped haircut. Therefore, he was mostly closely resembled my
composite sketch as opposed to Ronald Cotton that day.
And so, the problem is memory and we now know really how memory
works. It's not a videotape. The other problem is when I did the
composite sketch, you don't compartmentalize facial features. Like if
any of you sat down with an Identi-Kit and tried to put together the
photo or picture of your mothers, and you have seen your mother's face
a million times. You probably, I know you couldn't find her nose.
You couldn't. You couldn't find her eyes. You couldn't find her
ears, her cheek, her lips, or any of those things. You might come up
with the ears that kind of look like your mother's ears, but by the
time you are finished that composite sketch, it's not your mom.
So, when that composite sketch went in the newspaper, it was
not my rapist. It was a resemblance to my rapist. And we know composite
sketches often lead to really bad suspects. Because now people are
saying, oh, that looks like my cousin and I'm really ticked off at my
cousin. And so we know these are some of the things that happen. It
wasn't necessarily pressure. It was just the fallibility of memory.
So, for both of you, what changes in the system are you suggesting as resolving this?
One of the things that Ronald and I really try to talk about is first
of all is the nature of the adversarial system. If you go into Canada
people are appointed. They are not elected. So, they don't have the
natural adversarial system as we do in the United States.
one of the things we really talk about as best practices. The
sequential lineups versus simultaneous. Double blind testing. Audio
video taping of all confessions and interrogations and lineups. The
other thing we talk about is we need to demand post-conviction DNA.
It's just absurd that we don't have it mandatory post-conviction DNA.
DNA tests, biological evidence tests, it needs to be done and
there's not excuse not to. So, these are some of the things that we
talk about. Oddly enough, North Carolina when Ronald was exonerated
became very progressive in this movement. The detective who had become
the captain and then the chief of police, automatically mandated his
entire department to change over to best practices.
And his movement led to the entire state to mandate sweeping
changes in our basic law enforcement training manuals. So, we became
the second state behind New Jersey to mandate these changes because we
know if there are best practices, wouldn't we want to use those?
And so it just became one of those things where everybody kind
of sat back and said, well if it means we have guilty people going to
prison and innocent people not going to prison doesn't it make sense to
use these best practices?
But, there're only a couple of states that have mandated this.
We have little spotty cities and departments that are doing these
things, but states aren't taking this on and saying, this is got to be
So, what we try to illustrate through our own shared experience of the judicial system failing.
Let's take one more question. If people can talk to...
Yeah, we're going to be around. We're going to sign your books.
A question for you, Mr. Cotton. You are speaking to a group of lawyers
and law students here. What is your sense about the effectiveness of
your counsel? Is there anything that better lawyering could have done,
especially at the trial level that might have changed the result from
Yeah, there were certain issues too. The fact that he should have
tapped on, because the way the district attorney will be presenting his
case. There were issues that he should have spoke up for that he just
didn't. He didn't respond.
he just didn't... there was one attorney. He really went at it because
he told me from the beginning that we know you did not commit this
crime but if they want you, they'll get you. So, that right there,
right then and there told me a great deal about what was going on,
which I kind of figured that out anyway.
I'm not no dummy. I just look like it, you know what I mean. [laughs]
But, it's just the way it was. Other attorneys later on, down
the line, that said, if they had taken the case it wouldn't went the
way that it did.
Things happen for a reason.
One more question.
We heard from Mr. Cotton how he forgave you. How have you forgiven you? Have you forgiven you?
Well, that was a long process, to be honest with you. I think for me,
it's just been a time issue. It's just been doing the work I'm doing,
knowing that my story and Ron's story and our story can affect change.
That helps me understand how and why this happened and what I'm
supposed to do with it.
because, I feel very blessed that I can do this. I feel so blessed that
this is something that has been a part of my life. That I meet
incredible people across the United States, that I get to sit at the
table with exonerees and their families. These are blessings that I
have received and so I feel like it's my responsibility to continue
doing what I'm doing.
And accept the fact that I'm a human being and I made a human
mistake. I didn't do anything malicious. I'm just human. And it's a
human system and because it's a human system we're going to be
fallible. And if we're going to be fallible, for God's sake, let's put
things into practice that can insure that the best outcome in our legal
system so we don't have Ronald Cottons languishing and wasting their
lives, screaming in the dark, while Bobby Pooles are walking on our
streets so that they can [inaudible]. So, to me, it's a blessing. Yes,
I've forgiven myself, [inaudible] and forgive myself. It's been a
journey, a series of events that would help me.[applause]