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Cannonball Read III: Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo

By Mrs. Smith | Books | June 15, 2011 |

By Mrs. Smith | Books | June 15, 2011 |

How good is your memory? On the night in 1984 when she was assaulted and raped in her apartment, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino thought her memory was excellent. During those agonizing 45 minutes, she concentrated on remembering her attacker’s face, body and clothing. Based entirely on her identification, Ronald Cotton was mistakenly convicted of the crime and sentenced to over fifty years in prison, not once, but twice. At the second trial, the defense even brought the true perpetrator to court, but the judge would not allow the jury to consider his testimony. Cotton does look remarkably similar to the man who assaulted Thopmson-Cannino, but he was innocent. Jennifer was so certain of her identification, she did not even recognize Bobby Poole as her actual attacker when she saw him in court at the second trial.

Picking Cotton tells two sides of the same story, which took place in and around Burlington, NC and unfolded over years of anguish, frustration and determination for both of the victims of Bobby Poole. Divided into sections, the book recounts the events, first from Jennifer’s perspective, then from Ronald’s.

Jennifer was brutally attacked and suffered for years from the psychological fallout of such a traumatic event. After the trial, she was at least convinced that the man who had attacked her and another woman the same night, was locked up for a long time. Thompson-Cannino was applauded for her ability to recount the events of her ordeal and gave police a surprisingly accurate description of her attacker. Unfortunately, Ronald Cotton also looked like the police sketch and was known to the Burlington police for a prior sexual assault charge and other petty crimes. The police contacted Cotton and he went in to the police station on his own to clear things up and didn’t emerge from prison for almost eleven years.

Before DNA evidence technology, crime solving was mostly about detectives looking for suspects and ruling out possibles to narrow down to the probable culprit. In Jennifer’s case, there were no fingerprints, no blood (though there was a tiny bit of blood evidence at the scene of the second attack) and very little physical evidence to examine. Thompson-Cannino’s identification of Cotton as her attacker was the sole piece of evidence used to convict him. The second victim was unreliable and unable to describe her attacker with any detail.

Picking Cotton is more a story of forgiveness and friendship. Ronald Cotton was the first inmate exonerated by DNA evidence in the state of NC and one of the early cases taken up by The Innocence Project. Today, Thompson-Cannino and Cotton appear together often as advocates for re-opening cases in which DNA or newer evidence assessment methods might solve cold cases or exonerate the wrongfully convicted. PBS presented a “Frontline” episode, “What Jennifer Saw” about the case and they have appeared together on “Larry King Live” and other TV shows to talk about their unlikely friendship which came about after the Frontline episode aired.

This is an amazing story, and the most amazing part of all is the grace and dignity which Ronald demonstrates in every facet of his life. He was often frustrated and bitter, especially when Bobby Poole landed in the same prison with him, shortly after the first trial. Cotton knew who the actual rapist was almost from the very beginning of his wrongful imprisonment. Jennifer has to be given credit for her ability to recognize the seriousness of her mistake and her willingness to meet with Cotton to ask his forgiveness. This is a very uplifting story, and I’m not afraid to admit, I got a bit teary a few times. Picking Cotton is the best kind of true-life story, full of tragic, unforeseen consequences that resolve into a hopeful, positive and life-affirming relationship that allows us to see the good in the world around us. Something we can all use more of.

For more of Mrs. Smith’s reviews, check out her blog, Mrs. Smith Reads.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.

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