In the summer of 1984, a student named Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint in her apartment. It was early in the morning. She was twenty-two years old, and attended Elon College, in Burlington, North Carolina. After the attack, she managed to escape to a neighbor’s house. But before daybreak, the assailant had invaded another home and had raped another woman.
Ronald Cotton recalls seeing the composite sketch in the newspaper. “It had been all over the news,” he writes. “Two white girls got raped in the same night. ‘Man,’ I recalled saying to [my brother] Calvin. ‘When they get him, he’s done.’”
On August 1 of that same summer, Cotton heard that the police were looking for him. A week after that, Jennifer, whom he’d never seen before, picked him out of a lineup of seven men. She felt certain that he was the perpetrator. Cotton was charged with first-degree rape, burglary, and sexual offense.
Like Jennifer Thompson, Cotton was twenty-two years old. He came from a big, loving family in Burlington. He was working as a busboy at a seafood restaurant at the time and trying to get his life together. Earlier that year, he’d gotten out of prison for breaking and entering, and at sixteen he was arrested for breaking and entering with intent to commit rape. He had been out drinking, he says, when he snuck into to the home of a girl he’d been seeing and got into bed with her. She yelled, and her mother burst in with a shotgun. He was a kid, but his court-appointed attorney told him he was looking at fifty to ninety-five years, and encouraged him to plead out.
After the rape, Jennifer had trouble sleeping. Her relationship with her boyfriend broke down. She writes that at least once a week, she called the police in a panic to report an intruder who wasn’t there. Ronald’s was the face that haunted her, and she was determined to see him put away. “The police officers and the prosecutors told me I was the ‘best witness’ they ever put on the stand,” she later reflected. “I was ‘textbook.’” Ronald was sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years. Just months later, at Central Prison in Raleigh, he met Bobby Poole. Cotton eventually learned that Poole was the man who had committed the crimes Cotton had been convicted of.
Almost three years after his original conviction, Ronald was retried—by an all-white jury—for the rape of both Jennifer and the second woman. Despite statements that Poole had confessed to a fellow inmate, and that his blood type, not Ronald’s, had been found at one of the crime scenes, the judge ruled that the evidence be excluded. Ronald was convicted of two counts of burglary, two counts of rape, and two counts of sexual offense, and was sentenced to two life sentences plus fifty-four years in prison.
In prison, Ronald came to forgive Jennifer; he looked to God and took solace in his own innocence. In 1992, he came in contact with a law professor, Richard Rosen, and Tom Lambeth, an attorney, who took up his case and agreed to pursue the DNA test that would clear his name. In June 1995—after nearly eleven years behind bars—he was told that the DNA found at the second woman’s home matched Poole’s, not his. He was released the following day. “I looked up at the bright blue sky,” he later wrote, “and said, ‘Lord, where do I go from here?’”
He took a job at LabCorp, the company that had tested his DNA, and fell in love with a coworker, Robbin, whom he married on his thirty-fifth birthday. With the compensation he received from the state, they moved to Mebane, a town outside of Burlington. They bought a ranch house, where they’ve raised their daughter, Raven. In April 1997, he and Jennifer met for the first time, at the Elon First Baptist Church. “If I spent the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn’t come close to how I feel,” she told him. “Can you ever forgive me?” He told her that he wasn’t angry at her, and that he only wanted them both to be happy.
Since then, the two have forged a deep friendship, speaking publicly on behalf of the falsely convicted and about the failures of eyewitness testimony. They chose journalist Erin Torneo to tell their story, and in 2009 they published Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, from which the quotes in this introduction are taken.
I spoke with Ronald Cotton over the phone from his home. He had picked his daughter up from school a few hours earlier and had done another interview in the meantime. He was tired but generous with his time and his focus. He speaks in statements, with clear beginnings and endings, and pauses for as long as he needs to. His tone is steady, and he describes these events in his life, which he has been asked to describe many times, with objectivity, not detachment.
THE BELIEVER: What are your days like? When the book came out, you were working at an insulation plant, right?
RONALD COTTON: Yes. I just try to stay busy—continue doing things around the house, more interviews, book tours, and making sure my daughter is being very productive in life. She’s seventeen. She’s very active in school.
BLVR: So the book is sort of full-time now.
RC: Yes, it is. Full-time. But it’s not so bad, you know.
BLVR: To start, could you walk me through the day that you were arrested?
RC: Well, the day that I was arrested, I had just come home. I learned from my mother’s boyfriend that the cops wanted me, that I was a suspect in a crime. I borrowed my neighbor’s car and went down, along with my sister and my girlfriend that I was dating at the time. Once I entered the building, a cop stepped out, identified himself. I told him who I was, that I heard they were looking for me for a crime I didn’t commit. And they took me upstairs and interrogated me, and wasn’t long after that they locked me up. I couldn’t believe it. I’d voluntarily gone down to see what was going on and straighten the matter up. Ended up getting locked up. I didn’t come out until eleven years later.
BLVR: You wrote that, in the back of your mind, you had a feeling that if the police wanted to keep you, they would find a reason.
RC: Yes, I did. That’s why I took my sister and my girlfriend with me. That way, if they locked me up, then either one of them could take my neighbor’s car back, which they did. It was just a gut feeling that I had, because I realize when you’re dealing with cops, you just never know the outcome of the situation. It’s not always pretty.
BLVR: In terms of the treatment you received at the station on that day—you wrote about how one officer, Detective Sully, spoke to you threateningly about the fact that you had dated white girls in the past. Do you feel like that attitude played out in the case?
RC: I think Mr. Sully was just a racist officer. The statement that he made that day to me, it kind of struck me—that I thought I was Mr. Big Stuff, going around town, screwing white women. I told him immediately, “You don’t tell me who I can date and who I can’t.” I told him that I knew why he was doing what he was doing—by force, locking me up for a crime I did not commit.
BLVR: Do you remember your first impressions of Jennifer, in the lineup, in the courtroom?
RC: Once I was selected out of the physical lineup, I went to my probable-cause hearing, trying to get a bond reduction. And Jennifer, she was on the stand, and the judge instructed her to describe this perpetrator, the one that had committed the crime upon her. In her description, she put it that this guy had a little mustache, or he had the dirt over his top lip. She was describing me. It kind of affected me—it made me want to take a stand—but I knew I couldn’t at that particular time, because I was trying to get a bond reduction. I wanted to make bail. But from the beginning, I was mad toward her. I hated her. I felt like this was a game—that they’d put this together. Dirty cops. I know they had a job to do, but they didn’t do a thorough investigation on this case. Now, Sully, he sent me a friend request on Facebook.
RC: And I confirmed it. You know, I thought about it first. I thought about it, and I said, Why not? But he had to contact me; I didn’t contact him. I’ve had a few other officers send me friend requests.
BLVR: Did he ever apologize?
RC: Sully never did apologize. I thought maybe he would, but he didn’t. Because, see, when I got out of prison, I went to work for LabCorp, in Elon. And Sully was working there on security. A bomb threat came in, and Sully was one of the officers working security on LabCorp premises. I saw him quite often, but he never did apologize. The only thing he said was “I hope the ol’ man is stayin’ out of trouble.” And that right there got on my nerves. I just shook my head. Because he knew he was wrong. I see him sometimes on the streets in Burlington. I hold my head up, and I keep going. In fact, when I had my stroke—four and a half years [ago], in my sleep—and I went to the hospital for a checkup, I saw him. I told my daughter who he was. My daughter, she said, “I’m going to say something to him.” I said, “No, don’t do that”—I had to pull my daughter back. She didn’t know the full story. And I wasn’t about to let her get into trouble.
BLVR: You said you had a stroke four years ago?
RC: In my sleep, yeah. Got a staph infection in my right leg that I caught from being in the hospital.
BLVR: I’m sorry to hear that.
RC: Yes. Well, things happen for a reason, I realize. I wasn’t in the best health. I’m not going to let it get me down. I’m gonna keep on pushing.
BLVR: You were twenty-two at the time you were arrested.
RC: Yes, I was.
BLVR: When you look back on yourself at that age, what were you like? What was your life like?
RC: Well, trying to get it together. Taking it one day at a time. I was somewhat in the fast lane, you know. And as a person of that age, you enjoy life. You party like there’s no tomorrow.
BLVR: You said that at the start of your sentence, you wrote a lot of letters to the media—newspapers and television. Did you receive any responses?
RC: Well, some of them I did get, some of them I didn’t. I was just trying to open their eyes up, to be aware that things like this do happen. And it will continue to happen. As long as there’s a system run by humans, it’s gonna happen. Dealing with the cops, they only want a conviction. To get that victory under their belts.
BLVR: Do you remember how you felt when you received your sentence?
RC: Yes, I will never forget. I was in shock; I couldn’t believe it. [During my second trial,] the judge asked me if I had anything I wanted to say to the court. I stood up and asked him if I could have permission to sing a song that I wrote, because I was so hurting inside that I couldn’t really express myself into details. I sang a song from a poem that I had written about when God came into my life. He told me to go ahead, and I sang the song, and once I finished, I looked at my lawyers—one of them on my right, one of them to my left—and they had their heads down to the floor, as if I had made them feel ashamed. But it didn’t make any difference to me, because I was the one standing up there, who’d been locked up, tried, convicted [for] something I did not do. Once I finished the song, he handed out the sentence. He gave me a life sentence and fifty-four years, running at the expiration of the life sentence. So I walked out, back to the jailhouse. I was sad. But I had to do what I had to do. Take the sentence and accept it. And you know, I lay there in the county jail for, like, three more days. They told me to pack my belongings, and I packed my belongings and went off to prison in Raleigh, North Carolina. I couldn’t believe it.
BLVR: By then you’d met Bobby Poole, the person who committed the crime you were incarcerated for. He was in the same penitentiary as you.
RC: Yes. I was walking down the tunnel in prison when this Bobby Poole guy was being escorted in. The very next day, I saw him out on the prison yards. I was in the process of playing a handball game with other inmates. I looked over and noticed him standing to the side. Immediately, I had someone release me from the game, because I wanted to have a word with this guy, and put the question to him— where was he from? And he was from the same hometown that I’m from. I asked him, did he commit the crime that they had me locked up for? And he denied it. And I told him that he looked like the drawing of the suspect in the sketch that came out in the local paper. I actually had it in my locker, in my dorm. I went and got it and I compared it to him, and I said: That’s him. He went on to become friends with another inmate. And Poole told [him] that he had me locked up for a crime he committed.
BLVR: After that, you write that you made a shank and you were intending to harm him, until you had a conversation with your father, where he sort of appealed to your conscience.
RC: Yeah, I did. I was in school in prison; I stayed after school, and I pulled a piece of metal out of the teacher’s desk. I took it to the basketball court and filed it down. I made a handle out of a T-shirt. It wasn’t long after, I had a visit from my father.
BLVR: What do you think would have happened had you not had that conversation?
RC: I probably would have attempted to kill Mr. Poole. I would have been in prison today for murder in the first degree, because I told Mr. Poole that once I get the opportunity, that I was going to take him out, and it wasn’t going to be up to him.
BLVR: Did you feel like that conversation with your father was a turning point, in terms of the way that you—in terms of everything?
RC: It definitely was. I mean, because I used to lay in my bunk, holding this weapon in my hands, clutching it to my chest, every night. And it so happened, one morning, I thought about the situation. And I got up from my bunk with this weapon in my hand. And I walked on to the restroom and dropped it down the drainpipe. I listened to it rattle till it stopped. I could have easily taken this weapon and sold it for thirty, forty dollars, but eventually someone would have gotten hurt from that weapon. They would have been hurt real bad, and I didn’t want it to be on my conscience.
BLVR: How did you come to forgive Jennifer?
RC: Well, I grew up in the bible. I went to church twice a week. And thinking about the situation, as I was in prison, it just struck me to go ahead and forgive Jennifer for making this costly mistake. Because I was beating myself up about it. I was walking around through the prison feeling miserable. I lay my pen down, and said to the good Lord up above, “Release all this anger and bitterness out of me toward her. Give me peace of mind and body, so I could go ahead and serve my time at ease.” And about three days later, all that hate was gone. It was my second year in prison. I felt so much better. But you know, still, I was lingering, dwelling in the prison system. I had so much time to think about my situation. I wasn’t about to give up. I took a little break there, but I wasn’t about to give up. When you’re constantly doing something, you get tired—just like a regular day job, you’re working seven days a week, you’re going to be tired. And my mind was like it was on the racetrack, racing constantly. Even when I was sleeping. But I thank God for giving me the strength to be able to handle the situation. I realized he wasn’t gonna put any more on my shoulders than I could bear.
BLVR: What thoughts were going through your head?
RC: Just to hang in there, it wasn’t going to be long that I was gonna get out of there. Walking around the prison yard, thinking about my situation, all of a sudden I got this feeling that I wasn’t gonna be there much longer. And within a week, they called me to the office and tell me I was gonna be shipped out the next day. And I was—I was shipped to a different prison. In my time, serving time, I was transferred to five different prisons. Number five played a great part in my life back then. That was the first meal I ate from McDonald’s, when I got out, was a number five.
BLVR: Once you started to be able to forgive Jennifer, did you find that you were able to empathize with what she had been through?
RC: Yes, I did. I knew that a crime had been committed upon her. But I’m so sorry that they thought it was me, and knowing in my heart and my mind that it wasn’t me, I just had to continue to move forward. I prayed for them.
BLVR: You talk about surviving in prison, and I was wondering about how you dealt with loneliness while you were incarcerated. Does that become a secondary consideration when you’re trying to stay alive, or is it always an issue?
RC: My time surviving in prison was keeping my mind occupied with positive change. Working in the kitchen, participating in other activities, like singing with the band, researching my case. Staying away from bad inmates—you know, a lot of them are in there. I was in there myself, but I had to distance myself and stay mostly to myself. I socialized, but only to a limit, with people there. Because I was trying to get out. Some of them were not getting out. I was more like an example to some of the prisoners in there that weren’t able to handle it the way that I did. They wanted to know how was I able to move through prison at ease? But I made it up in my mind that I was going to make my bed soft, not hard. You gonna make your bed hard, you gonna make it hard for your life. You gonna make it soft, you can have it easy. And it was easy for me. I worked in the kitchen, sweeping the floor, serving food up. I worked my way up to a dietitian position, and I had, like, fourteen hundred patients—I had to prepare food for their diet. That kept me very positive. I had something to look forward to. I enjoyed it. Even though it was a place that I didn’t want to be. But when I was there, I just made the best of it. Prison is a world within itself. There are rules and regulations, just like in this free world. You can get locked up in prison just like you can out here: out here, you mess up, you’re going to jail. In prison, you mess up, you’re going to segregation. I know some guys who’ve been in segregation, in lockup, for years. One guy told me he’d been in lockup for five years. He was from Burlington. He’s still in prison. He’s in prison for raping a nurse at the Alamance county hospital. And he says he didn’t do it, but he hasn’t yet proven that he didn’t do it. I thought he was getting out a couple years ago, but they denied him for parole. I feel bad for him, but I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there.
BLVR: Are there people you were incarcerated with who you think were innocent?
RC: Yeah. We had formed a little group; we exchanged transcripts and went through and researched the cases. And when we found something, we would highlight it and file a motion to the court from inside the prison, which was often denied. There were a couple guys that were found to be innocent after my case. And once outside, in the free world, we were going to meet up in Raleigh, North Carolina, but I was so busy doing the book tour that I could never find the time to meet up with them. I’d just call them, or email them. But they went on with their lives, and they’re still out here, surviving and prospering.
BLVR: Why did you feel like it was important to talk to Jennifer after you’d been released?
RC: Because I was looking for that closure. Because she was the one that got it started, you know—she was a victim, it’s true, but I just wanted to hear those words come directly from her mouth, that she was sorry. It took her almost two years to come forward. But I was glad that she did. It brought closure to me as well as herself.
BLVR: What changed in your life after you met her?
RC: Well, I was happier, I was more outgoing. We started traveling together. And I was able to feel good about her. I looked at her with a different perspective… I just was at ease. And it has been that way ever since.
BLVR: Did you feel like you had completely forgiven her, or was it something you had to struggle with sometimes?
RC: No, I have completely forgiven her, yes. I realize people make mistakes. Everybody’s human.
BLVR: How would you describe your relationship with God at this point in your life?
RC: It’s still very strong. I don’t get to go to church as much as I used to, because I’m very busy. I do spend a lot of time listening to the Word at night on the radio at home, or on television. I stay so active that I don’t know where I’ll be from one moment to the next. But I do pray to the Good Lord, for me, my family, my friends, and people that I do not even know. Because that’s what it’s all about. Peace and happiness.
BLVR: And how would you describe your relationship to your conscience?
RC: Well, it’s peaceful. I’m at a point in my life where I feel good, even though I’ve had a stroke. I’ve been down a rough road. I’ve been wet and hung up dry. And I just—I’m different day to day. ’Cause tomorrow’s not promised. I gotta worry about what’s going to happen the next day, and then forget that day. I pray that each night I’ll live to see another day on this earth.