Mistaken identification – a memoir of injustice and redemption

by Jerry Waxler

The memoir “Picking Cotton” begins with the home invasion and rape of Jennifer Thompson a college student in a small southern town. Society cried out for justice, and in response, Ronald Cotton was convicted to a life sentence. Eleven years later, he was fully exonerated, having been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. This memoir tells the story of both victims, about their journey through that dark night, and the years that followed, explaining what went wrong, and how they picked up the pieces.

When the search began for the monster who had assaulted Jennifer Thompson, Ronald Cotton seemed to fit the part. This young black man had already been in trouble with the law and he had been dating a white girl, two facts that attracted police. He told them there had been a mistake, because he was out with friends that night. Unfortunately, he realized too late that the outing had been on a different night. At the time of the rape, he was actually home asleep on the sofa, a fact sworn to by members of his family. The all-white jury weighed their testimony against Jennifer Thompson’s positive identification. “That’s him,” she said under oath, and so Cotton went to jail.

After the trial, no longer worried about her attacker being on the loose, Jennifer had to face the disruption of her safety and normalcy. Eventually she reclaimed her life, married and started a family. Cotton meanwhile was trying to avoid despair. Early in his incarceration, he learned that another black man had privately bragged about committing the rape. Yet, a botched appeal dismissed this jailhouse confession.

Finally, a sympathetic defense team took up the case. Despite disturbing discrepancies in his trial, the new lawyers could not make a dent in Cotton’s life sentence. It was only after DNA testing that police interrogated the real rapist who officially confessed, including details he could only have known if he had been present at the crime. After 11 years in prison, Cotton was released.

In typical stories of crime and punishment, a diligent detective gradually pries the mask off the villain, and exposes hidden evil. In “Picking Cotton” investigators pried off the demon’s mask to reveal an innocent man.

Memoir as a tool for Redemption

Having been certain that Ronald Cotton was her attacker, it was difficult for Jennifer Thompson-Cannino to revise her mental image of him. And yet, she needed to do something. Haunted by the awful fact that her identification had ruined years of his life, she finally reached out to apologize. When she discovered he had forgiven her, she wanted to do more. Jennifer became actively involved in trying to raise awareness that a victim’s identification should not be considered infallible.

Out of the rubble of that destructive night, a friendship developed that could hopefully save lives. The two appear together on talk shows, trying to put a human face on the tragedy of wrongful imprisonment, especially when based solely on a single person’s memory. Their advocacy aided by the publicity generated by the memoir has contributed to revising guidelines for witness identification, hopefully reducing the psychological influence that can be exerted by police to steer the victim towards their preferred perpetrator.

Stylistic and Emotional Strengths of Picking Cotton

The book alternates between two points of view. For example, in one section we watch the police lineup from Jennifer’s eyes, and later we see that lineup through Ronald’s eyes. Their journey starts out in this treacherous, bleak territory – the rape, the trial, life inside a prison. Then, as they try to make the most of their situations, their paths lead them back towards a lighter place. Their first encounter was based on fear, terror, and error, while their second was based on love and forgiveness, and the effort to transform a wrong into a right. The memoir takes us along on this emotional and moral journey, moving from the external activity of criminal investigation, to the higher moral justice of actual truth.

Thinking at the moral edges

The story of “Picking Cotton” raises many issues. It engages the reader in race relations, justice, and injustice. It involves gender politics, violence, and the power of men over women. It reveals problems with identification, one of the foundations of our legal system. And it digs deep into the challenge of “redemption,” that effort to turn back the clock and make up for what happened in the past.

When I was younger I hoped I could discover the underlying truth that governs the world. I wanted this Truth to exist in science, or in philosophy, or spirituality. But I kept finding that facts and theories could not contain the entire human condition. Rather, through my study of memoirs, I find that within each lifetime or situation, there is a system of right and wrong that is every bit as cosmic as the absolute truth I had always looked for.

In every memoir, I find an author’s perspective that extends my understanding farther and farther. From their point of view, my own logic does not necessarily apply. Instead of my search for one absolute truth I have shifted my focus. In the world of real people, I no longer look for the one right answer. Instead, I seek to understand their stories.

Writing Prompt: Thinking and Writing About Your own Redemption

After a wrong has been committed, how much time and energy do we put into trying to make amends? While we can’t turn the clock back, can we restore some of the decency and dignity of our lives? The Twelve Step Programs suggest that it is worthwhile in many cases to not only face mistakes but try to learn their story, so we can do everything within our power to make them right. The Ninth Step says, “We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” If there are areas in your memoir that you feel might have caused pain to others, consider the Twelve Step suggestions. Are there ways you could help? Have you used the situation to grow? What have you learned? Could your story help someone else avoid a similar situation?

While most of us don’t have the near-miraculous opportunity Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton had to set the record straight, we can pay it forward, to help others who are in a similar situation, or to spread the word and share the story by writing a memoir.

Amazon page: “Picking Cotton Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption,” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo”

For the Picking Cotton’s home page, including appearances by the authors click here.

For the site that campaigns against wrongful imprisonment, see the Innocence Project.

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