Ronald Cotton

[Forensic Reform Advocate]

“I asked him, did he commit the crime that they had me locked up for?”
Advice for moving through the world more easily:
Make your bed soft, not hard

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.

—Alexandra Molotkow

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Alexandra Molotkow has written for the New York Times Magazine and as a columnist for the Globe and Mail. She is a former co-editor of the Hairpin was a founding editor at Hazlitt.


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