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EXCEEDING THE HUMAN CONDITION
To hear Ronald Cotton tell it, it wasn’t nothing but a thing, a little something he had to go through on the way to be ing the man he is today. A man who doesn’t display one visible ounce of anger or angst, or even regret on the lines of his forehead as he sits there at a public forum talking about his experience.
To his left is the blonde woman whose false accusation in 1984 sent him to prison on a rape charge for 11 years. When the issue of her false identification comes up, she looks down demurely, as if still regretting the decision she made to pull Cotton out of a photo lineup after her description generated a composite sketch that somewhat resembled him.
It’s that intersection of memory and appearance that was the topic of the discussion at Scuppernong Books last week. While the books may have much merit, they pale in comparison to the human capacity for forgiveness that is on display between Cotton and his one-time accuser, Jennifer Thompson. The pair now tour the country advocating ways to improve criminal investigative procedures.
Thompson opened the discussion, recounting the night of the incident, which just happened to be 30 years ago last week. She was a college student living in an apartment in Burlington at the time. She said she awoke to a man on top of her and was unsure if she would live or die. She made the conscious decision to look the man in the face, to try and humanize, as much as possible she said, the inhuman thing being done.
Because of that glimpse at her accuser’s face, spread out over 20 minutes of violent sexual assault, police asked her to put together a composite sketch. Three days later Thompson picked Cotton out of a photo lineup.
“Good, that’s who we thought it was,” she recalled police telling her.
A week later she picked Cotton out of a physical line up.
Cotton was tried a few months later and in early 1985 an Alamance County jury found him guilty, based primarily on the fact that his accuser had identified him.
Cotton maintained his innocence all along, but was resigned to his fate and began struggling to maintain his sanity in prison, where he said men threatened to rape him in retaliation for his supposed crime. Fighting to stay alive became a part of his normal routine.
He studied law books and routinely filed motions, a skill that would serve him in due time when he learned of the new science of DNA evidence while watching the OJ Simpson trial in 1995.
By then Cotton had learned that another inmate, one he knew from Alamance County, had supposedly confessed to the rapes. Cotton passed him one day in a prison in Tennessee where North Carolina leaders were shipping inmates to save taxpayer dollars back home.
Something about the man jogged his memory, Cotton said, and at first he set about devising ways to exact revenge. He made a shank from a piece of a metal desk, a t-shirt and hot glue.
Cotton said he held the shank in his hands at night as he sat in the dark, plotting. But, luckily for Cotton, his own father talked him out of revenge and he dumped the makeshift weapon in a pipe.
Cotton befriended the rapist, Bobby Poole, as much as two inmates can become friends, and was even able to get a picture of Poole, which Cotton said he sent to his attorney to reveal the resemblance.
After learning about DNA exonerations, Cotton said he pulled out his legal pad and began crafting a request, which was finally granted and excluded him at once as the man guilty of the crime for which he was incarcerated.
“It was the most wonderful feeling you could ever feel,” Cotton said of the moment the judge dismissed the charge.
For her part Thompson had begun to piece her life together as best she could, admitting it had not been easy.
“It became a train wreck of all sorts,” she said of the years following the attack. “My anger and my hatred was something I’d never felt before.”
She had found a way to move forward with her life and had become a mother by the time DNA evidence cleared Cotton in 1995. At once, she felt like a guilty party.
“I was left to try and sort through the debris, the wreckage of what I was supposed to do,” Thompson said.
She was unable to deal with the wrongness of her accusation for about two years, she said, until deciding to meet Cotton at a church in Elon and asking for his forgiveness. Cotton told her he had forgiven her long ago.
Saundra Westervelt, a UNC-Greensboro professor of Sociology and Criminology, said she was inspired by the way Cotton and Thompson could forgive each other. Westervelt, and Prof.
Kimberly Cook of UNC-Wilmington, worked together on a book about what happens to inmates exonerated from death row cases. Their research found that witness misidentification was a major factor in wrongful convictions.
Some of the most compelling discussion followed as Thompson spoke about her work with victims and law enforcement in trying to improve the criminal justice system. Following Cotton’s exoneration, Burlington police led by Mike Gauldin took steps to improve their use of photo lineups. That led to North Carolina being one of the first states to adopt a new standard for using photo lineups, implementing procedures that cut down on witness pressure. Thompson said that in her experience the pressure to pick someone was overwhelming. Mixed with memory contamination, she said that pressure builds.
“Once I picked Ronald Cotton the memory of Bobby Poole raping me that night is gone,” she said. “There is no way to return a pure image. It’s a human condition of our memory.”
But these two, Cotton and Thompson, rise above the normal human condition. When she touches him on the shoulder while describing how guilty she felt for causing his wrongful incarceration, Cotton too looks down.
It’s that humility and spirit of for- giveness that so many of us could use a touch of. !