In 1984 Jennifer Thompson, a white woman, was brutally raped by a black man that forced his way into her apartment while she was asleep. The rapist did not conceal his identity and did not “rape and run”. In fact, Jennifer Thompson talked to, and clearly saw, her rapist during this night of terror. Thompson was fortunate in that she was not murdered because she was able to safely escape from her apartment. Despite the fact that she survived, there is no doubt that Thompson’s life was greatly altered as a result of this horrible act.
As part of the investigation, Thompson described her assailant, went to the police department to work with a sketch artist who created a composite based on her description, and participated in a line-up. Ronald Cotton had the misfortune of having similar physical features of Thompson’s rapist. Ronald Cotton also had the misfortune of being one of the men included in the line-up. The actual rapist was not.
Jennifer Thompson, without hesitation, picked Ronald Cotton out in the line-up. She identified him as the man that forced his way into her home and brutally raped her. Despite his alibi, and consistent cries of innocence, law enforcement ended their investigation with Jennifer Thompson’s positive identification. As a result, Ronald Cotton was charged with, among other things, raping Jennifer Thompson.
At trial, Jennifer Thompson testified, without hesitation and with 100% certainty, that Ronald Cotton was the man that brutally raped her in her home. As a result of her compelling and emotional testimony, Ronald Cotton was found guilty. Jennifer Thompson’s compelling and emotional testimony sent an innocent man to prison.
11 years after his freedom was snatched away from him, Cotton was exonerated thanks to DNA.
After being released from prison, Ronald Cotton developed a life-long friendship with his accuser, Jennifer Thompson. They travel around the country and share their story with the hopes of raising awareness on the issue of false identifications. They have also joined in writing a book entitled Picking Cotton. Picking Cotton is a wonderful and insightful book about Jennifer Thompson’s brutal rape and the injustice that followed as a result of her false identification.
There is no doubt that Jennifer Thompson was brutally raped in her home in 1984. There is no doubt that this brutal attack turned Jennifer Thompson’s life upside down. There is also no doubt that Ronald Cotton did not commit this brutal act despite the fact that Jennifer Thompson told a jury that she was 100% sure that Ronald Cotton was her rapist. There is no doubt that this brutal attack turned Ronald Cotton’s life upside down. There is no doubt that it was a “rush to judgment” that led to this travesty of justice.
Stories like this are the reason I am not willing to join in the “rush to judgment” mindset when it comes to every allegation of sexual abuse or harassment. I know that our culture of disrespect toward women has led to victims of sexual abuse and sexual harassment not being respected and protected as they should be. This must change. I also know that innocent people have suffered greatly because of false allegations. Does that mean that I am not, or cannot be, a staunch supporter of #MeToo? I don’t think so.
Check out Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton as they share their riveting story: