by Keith Barber

Sixteen years after being raped by an intruder, and five years after the man she identified as her attacker — Ronald Cotton — was released from prison after DNA evidence confirmed his innocence, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino finally found her voice. The year was 2000 and Thompson-Cannino had been asked to tell her story in a Houston courtroom on behalf of a defendant in a capital murder case. The night before her appearance, she sat down to dinner with 12 people who had all been wrongfully convicted of a capital crime and sentenced to death because of false eyewitness identification. When the introductions began, they went around the table as each exonerated person told their story. When it came Thompson-Cannino’s turn to speak, she trembled. The guilt of being partly responsible for sending an innocent man to jail for 11 years nearly paralyzed her. Tears streamed down her face but somehow, she found the courage to speak.

“I said, ‘I don’t know about the victims in your cases, but from the bottom of my heart, I’m so sorry for what happened to each and every one of you,” Thompson-Cannino recalled. And then it happened. An exonerated man named Marvin Anderson stood up and thanked Thompson-Cannino for her courage, and she embarked on the third stage of a personal journey that helped her rise from the depths of despair to a place of forgiveness and compassion. “He said, ‘Ms. Thompson, you’re the first person who’s ever apologized to me. I think I can start to heal now,’” she said. “Over the next 24 hours, I became friends with these 12 incredible human beings, and those 24 hours taught me more about living than I had ever learned. And yet, we had thrown them away. We were within hours of executing some of these people and it became a turning point for me and allowed me to find my voice and really speak out on behalf not just of the wrongfully convicted but the victims who get caught up in a system that fails us.” Thus began the third stage of Thompson-Cannino and Cotton’s shared journey. For the past five years, Thompson-Cannino and Cotton’s unlikely friendship, a bond borne out of a tragic set of circumstances, has buoyed them as they have campaigned for greater accountability in the criminaljustice system. Thompson-Cannino and Cotton’s document of their sharedexperience is the subject of the New York Times bestseller Picking Cotton. Thompson-Cannino, a Winston-Salem native, held a book signing at WhitespaceGallery at the Piedmont Leaf Lofts, and talked about the inspirationfor the book and the healing power of forgiveness. Thompson-Cannino said it took 25 years for her to tell her story but Picking Cotton servesas a document of her and Ronald’s journey. In the first part of theirjourney, they were both victims of the real perpetrator, Bobby Poole,and a “failed justice system,” she said. “The second part of thejourney is really our friendship and how such a terrible event and sucha terrible violent tragedy can impact both of our lives and merge ustogether, and we had no idea we would end up this way as friends — twopeople who could share our stories together, and cry together and healtogether, and really become friends,” she said. Despite the fact Cottoncould not attend last Friday’s book signing due to work obligations,Thompson-Cannino did her best to give the 60 visitors in attendance aclear understanding of her good friend’s character. “He’sgiven me something I never thought I’d have. He became a teacher for meabout grace, mercy, forgiveness and healing,” she said. “I owe him alot because without him I could never have gotten to the place where Icould’ve let go.” Forgiving Bobby Poole and more importantly, forgivingherself became the third stage of Thompson-Cannino’s personal odysseythat fueled her passion to champion the wrongfully imprisoned. “Asa collective voice, each one of us has a moral responsibility to beoutraged when these things happen to ask for something better, to askfor a better judicial system,” Thompson-Cannino said. But ultimately, Picking Cotton isa personal memoir, not a political statement. It is two people tellingtheir tragic yet redemptive tale. And with each book signing,Thompson-Cannino said she meets women who can relate to her experience.It is during those private moments of shared stories that the value offinding her voice becomes crystal clear. “For them to be ableto look at me and say, ‘I totally get that, to be able to let go.’ Itbegins their journey, and that’s amazing for me to watch that,” shesaid.

JenniferThompson-Cannino signs copies of her book, Picking Cotton, at a readingin Winston-Salem, her home town. Thompson- Cannino mistakenly accusedRonald Cotton of rape, and the two established a relationship after DNAevidence cleared his name. (photo by Keith T. Barber)