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May 11, 2009

'Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption' — by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton


Longtime readers may recall Jennifer Thompson's powerful June 18, 2000 New York Times Op-Ed page essay, "I Was Certain, But I Was Wrong," which recounted how her positive I.D. of a man named Ronald Cotton (above) as her rapist sent him — an innocent man, as it turned out — to prison for 11 years.

Now comes their book (below), reviewed


in yesterday's Washington Post by Kate Tuttle, as follows.


Criminal Justice

Nearly everyone in prison protests innocence, but Ronald Cotton was telling the truth. Cotton was just 22 when he walked into a Burlington, N.C., police station to answer rape allegations; he spent the next 11 years seeking freedom. "Put a man in a cage with beasts and throw away the key, and it's usually not long before the man is a beast himself," he writes in this unusual joint memoir, written with his accuser, now friend, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino.

Considering the odds stacked against him — a bum alibi, a victim focused on being the strongest possible witness, a justice system all too willing to send another young black man to jail — it's extraordinary that Cotton emerged from prison at all. More stunning still was his willingness, upon exoneration by DNA evidence, to forgive the people who put him there, including rape victim Thompson-Cannino, whose erroneous identification of Cotton in a police line-up had begun his horrible odyssey.

Their story, told here in alternating sections, emphasizes that both were victims. Still, as both acknowledge, Thompson-Cannino, traumatized as she was, spent the next decade in freedom, marrying and having kids, while Cotton endured prison. Left mostly unexamined is the role race played in his incarceration, but even the most cynical reader will be impressed with Cotton's resilience and grace.

May 11, 2009 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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This remains one of the most powerful and mind-altering stories I've ever read. My opinion of my own observations was fundamentally altered through reading and reflecting on this story, when I first read it here.

Thanks for pointing out the book. I hope there's an e-book format version.

Posted by: Matt Penning | May 11, 2009 11:54:39 AM

It has been long proven that eye witness accounts are very very very inaccurate. Almost any prosecutor worth his salt knows the statistic...but they continue to rely on it anyways. Why? Because witnesses are emotional and convincing. Look at the OJ case 10 years back...the most empirical evidence EVER found on one person, yet it was the witnesses and not the evidence that got him acquitted (i.e., the fact that there was someone in the investigation that was racist...even though it would have taken an Act of God to taint the evidence to any extent that would matter).

Eye witness accounts are increasingly fallible and the matter of race IS an issue. No matter what race you are, folks from other races are not as ingrained into your model of comparing others as ones from your own race. The further we get from ourselves, the more we generalize.


Posted by: clifyt | May 11, 2009 10:47:11 AM

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