News 06.30.10

An Extraordinary Man and a Common Injustice

Fifteen years ago today, Ronald Cotton walked out of a North Carolina prison a free man for the first time in a decade. Since his release, he has turned his injustice into a teaching moment — traveling around the country telling his story and urging policymakers to enact safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions.

The lives of Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were changed forever on the night of July 20, 1984. A man broke into Thompson’s home and raped her at knifepoint.  During the attack, Thompson said she tried to concentrate on the man’s appearance. During the police investigation, she viewed a photo lineup including Ronald Cotton and identified him as her attacker. Based mainly on Thompson’s identification, Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Cotton served 10 years in prison before DNA testing proved that another man had committed the crime. On June 30, 1995, he was finally freed.

Cotton immediately began to rebuild his life, and his life since his exoneration has been an extraordinary one. He got two jobs, married, and had a daughter. He worked hard to move forward, but presented with the opportunity to address his past, he embraced it, meeting face to face with Thompson, the victim in his case who was committed to addressing the issues that led to Cotton’s wrongful conviction for the attack she suffered. Today, united in their joint opposition to injustice, Cotton and Thompson are close friends, speaking together, advocating for reform and working to expose and remedy the causes of wrongful conviction. The two friends authored a book, “Picking Cotton,” a best-selling memoir about their individual experiences and the issue of eyewitness misidentification.

Since leaving prison, Ronald Cotton has led an exceptional life. The narrative of his friendship with Thompson is an exceptional story. But the facts of Cotton’s case: his age, the length of time he spent in prison, and the reason Cotton was sent to jail for a decade —eyewitness misidentification — are unfortunately all unexceptional. The average length of time served by exonerees is 13 years, and the average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongful convictions is 27 (Cotton was 22). Also, eyewitness misidentification was a factor in 75 percent of DNA exonerations.

Thompson and Cotton refuse to accept a system where wrongful convictions are too common, and they’re working to change it. Learn more about their stories by

reading the first chapter of “Picking Cotton” here

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Watch a special report from CBS News’ ”60 Minutes” on Cotton and Thompson

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Read Cotton’s case profile on our site

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Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:




Kenneth Adams

, Illinois (Served 17.5 Years, Exonerated 7/2/96)


Willie Rainge

, Illinois (Served 17.5 Years, Exonerated 7/2/96)


Dennis Williams

, Illinois (Served 17.5 Years, Exonerated 7/2/96)


Kirk Bloodsworth

, Maryland (Served 8 Years, Exonerated 6/28/93)

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