Authors of “Picking Cotton,” a story of wrongful conviction, to speak at UK

By Marc Thomas

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On July 29th, 1984, two worlds collided and the aftermath exposed a vulnerable justice system.

Jennifer Thompson said she was a typical 22-year-old college student at the time. She was going into her senior year at Elon University, maintaining straight A’s and her family was proud she would be graduating at the top of her class.

“Prior to July 29th, I felt like I had it all together,” said Thompson, who was raped on that day by a man who wielded a knife and threatened to take her life. “The only thing that went through my mind was that I didn’t want to die.”

Thompson said she studied her assailant’s facial features carefully during the attack so she could later identify him to authorities, and she reported him within minutes of the assault.“I didn’t want to see him hurt another woman,” she said.From there, she worked with a sketch artist to create a composite of her assailant. Three days after the assault, Thompson picked a man named Ronald Cotton in a police lineup and a jury subsequently convicted him of raping Thompson in January, 1985.

Cotton’s fate had seemingly been decided — he was to spend the rest of his days in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It may have seemed like justice was served, but in reality it was not for Thompson, Cotton and a man named Bobby Poole.

Courts later rule that Poole — not Cotton — was guilty of raping Thompson.

As time progressed, Thompson got married, had children and moved on with her life while Cotton spent his days imprisoned under a justice system that had failed him.

In 1995, Thompson’s and Cotton’s lives entangled again, this time by DNA. Cotton’s name was cleared when DNA results found he was not truly Thompson’s rapist.

“I just remember crying, I was paralyzed,” Thompson said. “You feel guilty, you feel paralyzed with fear.”

Since Cotton’s release from prison 20 years ago, he and Thompson said they have developed a friendship with forgiveness at its foundation. They now dedicate their lives to educate people about the harsh realities of wrongful convictions in the U.S.

The duo published a book with author Erin Torneo about their ordeal entitled “Picking Cotton.”

The book became a New York Times best seller and part of UK’s Common Reading Experience. Thompson is now the president and founder of Healing Justice, which according to their website, is an organization dedicated to help all people who have been harmed by wrongful convictions and provide a collective voice to mend the justice system.

In an event sponsored UK’s Office of New Student and Parent Programs, Cotton and Thompson will speak about the book at 7 p.m. on Oct. 8 at Memorial Coliseum.

CORRECTION: Jennifer Thompson dropped her hyphenated last name.