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Review: In 'Picking Cotton,' victim and wrongly accused man make the case that sometimes the legal system is blind

Jennifer Thompson was 22, a college student in North Carolina, when a man broke into her apartment and raped her at knifepoint. She "willed myself to look at him," to memorize every feature of his face, his voice, his height, so that if she survived the night she could send him to prison.

She picked Ronald Cotton from an array of photographs and again from a lineup in person. "It was him," she writes. "There was no doubt in my mind."

The same man had raped another woman that night, in precisely the same way. The second victim could not identify Cotton, so he was tried and convicted only for Thompson's rape. Her testimony was positive, unflinching, damning. She was sure of it then, and at a retrial that convicted him of both rapes, and whenever she thought of the man who had blighted her life. "I prayed each and every day for Ronald Cotton's violent death."

She was still sure of it the day in 1995 the police came and told her, "We were wrong. Ronald Cotton was not your rapist."

DNA testing had exonerated Cotton and implicated Bobby Poole, an inmate serving time for other rapes, who finally confessed to the crimes for which Cotton had spent 11 years in prison. Poole had been in the courtroom at Cotton's retrial. Neither of Cotton's presumed victims recognized him.

Cotton was the 23rd person to be exonerated by DNA testing. The Innocence Project Web site now lists 232, including two men — one in Florida and one in Texas — who died in prison before they could be cleared.

But the story of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, as told in first-person voices in this gripping, well-written book, is exceptional. It's a page turner, even for those who already know the story. One quibble: It deserves a better title than Picking Cotton, a too-cute play on words.

Two years after Cotton's release, both appeared separately on Frontline in a program titled "What Jennifer Saw." She heard Cotton wonder why he had never heard from her.

"The guilt suffocated me," she said, and she agreed to meet him. He forgave her. They wept in each other's arms.

They and their families became close friends, and they have campaigned together on behalf of other prisoners they believe to be innocent and for reforms to guard against similar miscarriages of justice.

It's a pipe dream, I know, but I wish everyone who sits on a jury would first have to read this book. It explains how eyewitnesses can be honestly but tragically wrong. They will often pick the "next best one" if the actual criminal is not in a lineup.

In Thompson's case, "Ron was the only person who had been in both the photo and the physical lineups, making his face more recognizable to me." To see him in the lineups and in court "meant that his face eventually just replaced the original image of my attacker."

Eyewitness errors, according to the Innocence Project, have been a factor — the leading cause — in 77 percent of the convictions reversed by DNA evidence. This poses chilling questions: How many innocent people remain in prison, how many have been executed, in cases — they are the majority of all cases — in which there is no blood or semen sample to be tested for DNA?

North Carolina, which did not object to Cotton's DNA testing request at a time when Florida and other states resisted such requests fiercely, now has the nation's best law on police lineups. The officer conducting them must not know who the suspect is, so as to avoid giving cues to the witnesses. North Carolina is also the only state to have established an official commission to investigate the claims of prisoners who insist they are innocent. It would behoove Florida to follow those examples.

Martin Dyckman, a retired Times associate editor, is author of "A Most Disorderly Court: Scandal and Reform in the Florida Judiciary," published by the University Press of Florida.

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

By Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo

St. Martin's Press, 304 pages, $25.95

Review: In 'Picking Cotton,' victim and wrongly accused man make the case that sometimes the legal system is blind 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 4:30am]
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