Summer Reading Picks
The miracle of grace and friendship. By: Keith T. Barber
Picking Cotton documents survivors’ stories, flawed justice system; by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton; St Martin’s Press; 2009
There is a school of thought that believes great beauty comes only at the cost of great pain and suffering. The lives of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton are a testament to that axiom. In the summer of 1984, an unknown intruder broke into Thompson-Cannino’s Burlington apartment and raped her at knifepoint. She managed to escape and run to a neighbor’s for help. Several weeks later, she identified Ronald Cotton as her assailant. As a result of her positive identification, Cotton spent the next 11 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Picking Cotton, a New York Times bestseller, is their dual memoir. The miracle of Thompson-Cannino and Cotton’s story took place 13 years later, on April 4, 1997. Jennifer had arranged to meet with Ron two years after he was released from prison when DNA evidence proved his innocence and Bobby Leon Poole confessed to her assault. She wanted to apologize. Picking Cotton tells the story of their meeting from both their perspectives, which gives it added emotional punch. “Can you ever forgive me?” Jennifer asked Ron during the encounter at the First Baptist Church of Elon College. “I forgive you,” Ron responded. “I’m not angry at you…. All I want is for all of us to go on and have a happy life.” Jennifer writes that the first meeting ended with a hug. “He seemed to be holding us all up,” writes Jennifer. That group hug proved to be the moment Thompson- Cannino began to feel the grace of forgiveness. After their first meeting, Jennifer and Ron made a number of public appearances together, and soon became best friends. In the past 12 years, Cotton and Thompson-Cannino have traveled the country together talking about their experiences and campaigning for criminal justice reform. They have worked diligently to raise awareness about the inherent flaws of eyewitness identification, which contribute to more than 75percent of wrongful convictions. Cotton has the distinction of being the first post-conviction DNA exoneree in state history. Ron’s case led to North Carolina becoming only the second state in the nation to adopt the best practices standards for law enforcement training. Ron’s former attorney, Rich Rosen, formed the NC Actual Innocence Commission as a result of his case. Based on the Innocence Commission’s recommendations, the NC General Assembly established the Innocence Inquiry Commission — the nation’s first forum for justice in innocence cases — in 2006. The work of Cotton and Thompson-Cannino has been instrumental in the state increasing compensation for exonerees. When Ron gained his freedom in 1995, the state only offered $500 a year for those wrongfully imprisoned. Now, the state offers $50,000 a year retroactive to 2003. Ron received a little over $109,000 from the state for the 11 years he spent behind bars. Thompson-Cannino said her deeply painful experiences have given her a personal mission — to instruct the public on how memory fails in eyewitness identification. “How does memory really, really work?” she asked. “Some of the things we think to be true are not true. We think the more certain we are about something, the more correct we are, and it’s really the opposite.” Thompson-Cannino has learned that “unconscious transference” led to her positive identification of Ron. The Burlington Police Department showed Jennifer a lineup of mug shots before the physical lineup. Ronald Cotton was the only suspect in both the photos and the physical lineup, which led to her identification. Mary Reynolds, who was victimized by Poole the same night as Jennifer, failed to identify Cotton as her assailant in the days following her assault. Three years later, however, Reynolds changed her mind and Cotton was convicted of her rape as well. Jennifer often speaks of how memory fails in the eyewitness identification process during prosecutorial symposiums. Each time she relates the story of her sexual assault, Bobby Poole has less and less of a hold on her, she said. However, she had never gone into the details of her rape outside a courtroom until she sat down to write Picking Cotton two years ago. “I did [relive it], and it was really difficult,” she said. “I had to thoughtfully consider how honest and raw I wanted to be about it because my children are 19. I knew they would read the book, and I knew their friends would read the book. My parents would read the book. Although people knew the story, it’s different when you actually read the details of that night, which I had actually never told outside of court.” Thompson-Cannino said she vividly remembers handing a copy of the memoir to her son, Blake, before he boarded a plane for Vietnam earlier this year. “I said, ‘Please don’t judge me,’” she recalled. Blake, who traveled to the Southeast Asian country to embark on a semester abroad, was the first of Jennifer’s triplets to read the book. Several days after his arrival in Vietnam, Blake sent his mother a message on the social networking site Facebook. “He said, ‘Just finished reading the book. I knew the story but I had no idea how brave my mother really was. I’m so proud to be your son,’” Jennifer recounted. She said there is an upside to Blake and his triplet sisters, Morgan and Brittany, knowing every detail of the night she was victimized by Bobby Poole. “I made mistakes,” she said. “It’s given my children permission to not have to be perfect and to know they can come to me and tell me things maybe the average parent won’t be told and we can work through it before a disaster happens.” The writing process proved excruciatingly painful for Thompson-Cannino. As easy as it would have been to withhold certain details, her honesty and willingness to bare her soul gives the book its emotional weight. Thompson-Cannino said she anticipated how hard it would be for her family to read the details of that horrific night and theperceived lack of support she felt from her parents, siblings andex-boyfriend in the aftermath. So before the book’s release earlierthis year she did her best to prepare them. “I talked to them veryhonestly one at a time and said, ‘The truth of the matter is, I neverfelt supported,’” she said. “‘The truth of the matter is, you nevercame to trial; you never did call me or write me a note of support.’ Ican’t make it any different than what it was, but I’m not angry aboutit any longer. It’s just the way it happened.”
Cotton spent the next 11 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
In the yearssince, Thompson-Cannino has gained insight into the way most familiesdeal with sexual assault. “I don’t think [my family] didn’t support mebecause they didn’t love me. I felt like they didn’t support me becausethey didn’t know how, and because a lot of times when people deal witha sexual assault, as a family member or friend, it’s almost likevisiting someone with cancer,” Thompson-Cannino said. “They just don’tknow what the heck to say.” Thompson-Cannino’s hope is that Picking
Cotton willencourage sexual assault victims “to give themselves permission tovisit their experience and then work through it.” Jennifer and Ronoften speak of the miraculous nature of their case, but they wonder howmany people in Ron’s situation never have a miracle. So theycontinue their fight to give a voice to the wrongfully imprisoned, toreform police investigation procedures and the criminal justice system,and to give hope to victims of crime and their families that someday,justice will prevail. Ron and Jennifer’s friendship, born ofpain and suffering, has helped raise public awareness regarding theflaws of the criminal justice system and the 235 post-convictionexonorees, like Ron, who campaign for justice for all who have beenwrongfully convicted. “For some reason I will never be able toexplain, Ron and I were supposed to bring some message to the system tomake it better,” Jennifer said. That is the beauty of their story, andthe reason Picking Cotton is a must-read this summer.
After mistakenly accusing Ronald Cotton of rape, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino sought his forgiveness, which he graciously extended.
Growing up too fast. By: Lindsay Craven
The Last Child; by John Hart; Minotaur Books; 2009
Formost people, childhood means carefree days, a feeling of security andhours of play. That’s not what childhood is like for Johnny Merrimon. Johnnylives in a world of deceit and abuse, which set him on an arduousquest. His face is framed with black strands, his eyes dark and pained. His classmates call him a freak, the community thinks he’stroubled. And after his sister disappeared one year ago, his familyfell apart. Definitely not the setup for a happy go-luckysummer read, John Hart’s The Last Child takes readers on a journey intothe dark world of a very tortured 13-year-old boy living on the NorthCarolina coast. “Having a thriller based around a 13-year-oldkid, I had to ask myself some pretty tough questions,” John Hart said.“What would take away the perfect life this boy had? How would he reactto the brutality of his changed circumstances? Where would he find thestrength to deal with that change and what dangerous path would thatstrength take him down?” Hart answers these proposed questions withpainful honesty. He examines the difficult reality of losing a piece ofyourself and what that loss does to the way you view the world. JohnnyMerrimon must adapt to a world without parents and without love. Thingsget out of control as he discovers the presence of sexual predators inhis neighborhood who may be responsible for his sister’s disappearance. He scopes out the homes of these dangerous men, waiting for theclue that can crack open this mystery. Also on the case is DetectiveClyde Hunt, whose failure to return the girl to her parents or evengive them the closure of her death leaves him with an intense feelingof guilt. His obsession with the open case drives his wife to divorceand his son to hatred. Hunt shows true compassion for Johnny,something few other characters do throughout the book, but when anotheryoung girl goes missing Hunt begins to see a darker, meaner side toJohnny; one that will stop at nothing to find answers to his questions. As Hunt desperately scrambles to solve the latest missing childcase he struggles with his own feelings for Johnny’s mother, Katherine,feelings that are putting his career in jeopardy and prompting someundesirable rumors about town. Katherine lives a nightmare: Her onlydaughter is missing and presumed dead; she is a junkie, and a veryunattractive and abusive man takes advantage of her weaknesses and herson. A year after her daughter’s disappearance, she is a pale, sunken,apathetic version of her former self. Johnny hates her for this butcannot leave her side. And he still needs to know what happened to hissister. John Hart achieves brilliance with his latest novel.Few authors collect the pain and thoughts of their characters sobrilliantly and poignantly. “Dangerous fiction makes forinteresting fiction,” Hart said. “For fiction to be dangerous thatmeans the writer has to take a lot of chances. What makes me most proudof this book is that I took loads of chances knowing full well that Icould be shooting myself in the foot and the fact that all thosechances have paid off have made the book the strongest thing that I’veever done.”
John Hart achieves brilliance with his latest novel.
Wicked Kernersville or lame K-Vegas? By: Jordan Green
WickedKernersville: Rogues, Robbers, Ruffians & Rumrunners; by Michael L.Marshall and Jerry L. Taylor; the History Press; 2009
MichaelL. Marshall will be the first to acknowledge that the Harvest Ridgesubdivision where he lives with his wife near the Forsyth-Guilfordcounty line bears little resemblance to the village of Kernersville ofthe 19th and early 20th century that is chronicled in the slim volumehe coauthored with Jerry L. Taylor called Wicked Kernersville. Toget to Marshall’s house, you take North Main Street, which becomes NCHighway 150, from the center of Kernersville towards Oak Ridge. Thesprawling Bible Revival Ministries Center mega-church materializes onthe right, and soon the entrance to Marshall’s subdivision appears. Newhouses with fieldstone finish and saplings not more than six feet inheight sprout from the ground, while about half of the lots remainempty and carpeted in weeds — testimony to the cratered real estatemarket. It looks like a typical Triad exurb — and it is. The64-year-old Marshall and Taylor, who is seven years his senior, grew upin this town, and their dads worked together at the Adam-Millis PlantNo. 4 in Kernersville. They went to college, pursued careers out ofstate, and each returned to their hometown, reconnecting appropriatelyenough through the Kernersville Historic Preservation Society. At 124 pages, Wicked Kernersville is a brisk and mostly entertaining read that is episodic rather than comprehensive. Thestories are not quite as salacious as the title would suggest, andTaylor discloses that the term “wicked” was imposed by the publisher, aCharleston, SC imprint called the History Press that has produced asmall series based on the theme: Wicked Washington, Wicked Charlotte,two volumes of Wicked Charleston and accounts of cities called Newportin both Kentucky and Rhode Island. “Rogues, Robbers, Ruffians & Rumrunners is our subtitle,” Taylor says. “We wanted to soften it.”
There’snot much here about activities that would be considered morallycorrupt, unless you count acts of violence prompted by over-consumptionof (mostly illicit) liquor; these characters are mostly ordinary, ifheadline-grabbing criminals. With an estimated population of22,407 today, Kernersville has grown by a factor of 37 over the past130 years. President Bush chose the town’s Deere Hitachi plant as asetting for a stagemanaged appearance in 2005. When hipsters call thetown “K- Vegas,” the nickname is entirely ironic. As the blurbnotes, despite its contemporary reputation for “quiet neighborhoods andlovely historic district homes,” early Kernersville “had its fair shareof unsavory characters.” So was Kernersville especially roughback in the day, or just typical in its danger quotient? George P.Winfree, who was interviewed in 1958 for an article in a localnewspaper called the People’s News, seems to have believed so. Winfreetold Editor Pete Nash Jr., as Marshall and Taylor write, thatKernersville “was a rough town and the talk of the entire state” — sorough, in fact, “that when the train passed through, the conductoradvised passengers to keep a low profile.” Marshall isinclined to think the claim is somewhat exaggerated. With the book’sthematic inconsistencies out of the way, it’s no exaggeration to sayWicked Kernersville is full of fascinating tales literally ripped fromthe headlines (and bodies) of contemporaneous newspaper stories.There’s the farmer named Biggs whose corpse was exhumed based on theoveractive imaginations of townspeople who thought they sawperspiration on his forehead before he was interred; the black man whowas busted out of the Greensboro jail by a Kernersville mob, then hungand shot on Spring Garden Road based upon an unsubstantiatedtransgression against a white woman; the father-and-son blockading teamshot to death by a pair of revenue agents; the estranged husband whohacked his wife to death and then inflicted the same punishment onhimself; the mail-order dog purveyor who was convicted of fraud foradvertising pedigreed hunting dogs to the gentry and instead sendingthem common mongrels; and the cross-dressing female bootlegger. (I’mexcited to report that at least three of the malefactors in this bookare Jordans, although there’s no evidence that they’re from the sameline as my forebears, who settled down east in Northampton County.)Marshall and Taylor’s account of the 1887 lynching of Eugene Hairston,said to be the only one in Guilford County, is especially horrific,although its circumstances and methods were most likely unremarkablefor its time. Considering that the authors are completely dependent oncontemporaneous newspaper articles for their research, the account willremind readers of just how racist the North Carolina press was in thelate 19th century. Based on the allegation of 18-year-old MahalaCordelia Sapp that the man threw her on the ground and choked her, theGreensboro Morning News screamed: “RAPE! A Negro Fiend Commits anOutrage Upon a Young Lady in Kernersville!” As Marshall and Taylorreport, another Greensboro newspaper, the North State, decried thelawlessness of Hairston’s mob, but concluded that the legal problemswith lynching would be best overcoming by preempting the law. “Ourwomen must be protected above all things,” the paper editorialized.“They are our most precious jewels, and earthly happiness is dependenton their purity and inviolability. When their virtue is assailed letthe actual or would-be ravisher, when he is caught and identified, bekilled on the spot like a wild beast if it can be done before the lawlays its hands on him.” We can give thanks that our history gives usnot only racist and sanctimonious mobs, but also cross-dressing femalebootleggers.
MichaelL. Marshall and Jerry L. Taylor will sign copies of Wicked Kernersvilleat Borders in Winston-Salem from 1 to 3 p.m. on June 14. Borders islocated at 252 Stratford Road. Call 336.727.8834 for more information.
A valley of malcontented humility. By: Brian Clarey
A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713; by Noeleen McIlvenna; UNC Press, 2009
NorthCarolina comes by its contrarian streak honestly, according to thepages of A Very Mutinous People, a meticulously footnoted and indexedmicro history by Noeleen McIlvenna of the region known back then asAlbemarle. The 50-year span she deconstructs, which occurredwell after the colony at Roanoke vanished into the saltwater mists, sawthe emergence of North Carolina as a colonial entity and theunderpinnings of an American thirst for democracy that, 100 yearslater, would lead to the American Revolution. The authorbegins the story in 1660, the year the monarchy was restored after theEnglish Revolution, and her historical narrative has all the stuff ofgreat fiction. In 1660, the area known as Albemarle occupiedthe northeast corner of what is now North Carolina, roughly from theChowan River to the Outer Banks and from the Virginia border across theAlbemarle Sound. Between the water and the tobacco plantationssimmered the Great Dismal Swamp, 2,200 square miles of impenetrablepocosin, thick mire, dangerous flora and fauna. By 1660, theauthor describes American colonists who had seen their English Kingtried by the people and beheaded, seen a gentleman farmer, OliverCromwell, build a republic advocating religious freedom andmeritocracy. They had powerful new ideas about authority, liberty,tradition and reason. They were angry enough to leave England asCharles II took the throne during Reconstruction; disdainful ofVirginia’s landed gentry who had already carved that colony up intotobacco plantations, or the affected finery and slave-owning ways ofSouth Carolina aristocracy. And they were brave enough — ordesperate enough —to ford the Great Dismal Swamp. They were veterans ofCromwell’s army, Roundheads, sailors who could navigate the barrierislands and inner waterways. They were escaped slaves, indenturedservants and debtors looking for open space and peace of mind. Theywere trappers and traders and fishermen, outcasts and hustlers andprisoners. Many of them sought religious freedom, like that mostradical of dissident groups, the Quakers.
Thefirst European settler on record is Nathaniel Batts, a fur trader whofled Virginia in disgrace, leaving behind a wife. He traded with theYeopim Indians, eventually taking a native bride and buying land fromthe elders of the tribe. McIlvenna calls him the “unofficial governor”of the state in the 1660s, after boatloads of disillusioned Virginianssettled there too. By the 1670s, the colony was home to an elaboratesmuggling operation that flourished in the shadows of British tariffsand presaged an armed rebellion against the governor of Virginia. Theman who laid claim to the position of governor of the colony in the1680s was Seth Sothell. He came on the scene in 1681 after beingransomed by Turkish Pirates and quickly grabbed power and land. Overthe course of the decade he would build a corrupt and terrible regimewhile pirates cruised the waters outside the barrier islands. Sothellwas overthrown by a scorned ally as the century came to a close. Theperiod in the state’s history is riddled with scoundrels, malcontents,revolutionaries and idealists. The man who gave his name tothe Containment Area for Relocated Yankees, for example, Thomas Cary,led the colony after a soft coup that counted just one casualty. He waseventually deposed by a cabal with ties to Virginia and the Crown. Naturally,he then enlisted the aid of the Tuscarora Indians and led an armedrebellion, which was not quelled until the Virginia Militia, and RoyalMarines drew close. McIlvenna, an assistant professor ofhistory at Ohio’s Wright State University, uses primary sourcedocuments to make her case: letters, personal papers, journals,narratives
McIlvennacalls him the “unofficial governor” of the state in the 1660s, afterboatloads of disillusioned Virginians settled there too.