Healing as a crime survivor of a wrongful conviction

An interview with crime survivor and wrongful conviction advocate Jennifer Thompson.

Special Feature 03.27.19 By Emma Zack

The 'letting go' ceremony at a Healing Justice retreat. Photo: Magali deVulpillieres.

The 'letting go' ceremony at a Healing Justice retreat. Photo: Magali deVulpillieres.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we interviewed Jennifer Thompson, the founder and board chair of Healing Justice, a non-profit that provides opportunities for healing in cases involving wrongful convictions and exonerations. Thompson is a rape survivor from a case involving a wrongful conviction and is a co-author of the New York Times Bestseller, Picking Cotton. Through our conversation, we learn about Thompson’s own healing process as a crime survivor in a wrongful conviction case, what motivated her to start Healing Justice, how restorative justice plays a crucial role in the organization, what programs it offers and why it is such a unique and important organization for anyone harmed by a wrongful conviction case.

How did you become involved in the Innocence Movement?

I became involved as a crime survivor whose case resulted in a wrongful conviction and, over ten years later, an exoneration. When Ronald Cotton was exonerated on June 30, 1995, I’d never heard of the Innocence Project or even the term ‘wrongful conviction.’ I’d certainly never heard the term ‘exoneree.’ It was Ron’s exoneration that led me to begin to wrap my mind around what had happened to both of us.

A few years after Ron’s exoneration, I agreed to participate in a PBS film titled, What Jennifer Saw. The film led to Ron and I meeting each other and reconciling in February 1997. That’s when the Innocence Movement found me. I think I became the first crime survivor to speak about wrongful convictions. From there, everyone wanted a part of me.

You recently founded a non-profit called Healing Justice that works with people harmed by wrongful convictions. What propelled you to start it?

I was driven to start Healing Justice based on my own experience with a failed justice process and the extensive residual harm done not only to those who are wrongfully convicted, but also to the original crime victims, both sets of families and everyone else affected. These harms have ripple effects that expand across generations and far into the community. Healing Justice was founded to address these concentric circles of harm.

But it took me a while to grow into this role. When Ron and I became friends in 1997, our story was broadcast everywhere. People all over the world asked me to do interviews and to present at conferences. I was paraded on stages and in front of cameras. I was young, and at this point, I didn’t understand what had happened to my mind or memory during the assault, nor did I know anything about fallible identification procedures used by police at the time.

I wasn’t at a place where I could advocate for myself. I felt like this was what I was supposed to do—that I was supposed to be puppeted all over the world to atone for my role in Ron’s wrongful conviction. I would find myself, hundreds of times, getting before cameras and audiences and being publicly flogged for what Jennifer Thompson had single-handedly done to Ronald Cotton. I allowed the narrative to be: “Rape victim falsely identified an innocent man and sent him to prison not once, but twice.”

It would take me until 2013 to understand all of the things wrong with that narrative. The reality is: I can’t send anyone to prison; it takes the police, prosecutors and courts to do that. And I certainly never wanted the wrong person to go to prison. A stranger committed a terrible crime against me, and I did my best under the circumstances to help the police find that person.  

Unbeknownst to me, the police department designed the lineup and put Ron in it based on a tip from someone else. I was then led through the identification process, which included Ron but not the perpetrator. I did what I felt I was supposed to do—to help solve the crime. Police reassured me I had chosen the person they believed was responsible.

Later, it was the state of North Carolina that charged Ron and brought him to trial where a jury found him guilty and a judge sentenced him. I didn’t have any control over that. And the result was that the criminal justice system failed us both. The actual perpetrator, Bobby Poole, is also to blame.

In 2013, Katie Monroe, who is the daughter of an exoneree and now the executive director of Healing Justice, moderated the first-ever panel of all crime victims and survivors at the Innocence Network Conference in Charlotte, NC. She wanted the Innocence Movement to understand the catastrophic effect wrongful convictions have on the original crime victims and survivors.

I am so glad I agreed to be on the panel, because it was life changing. It blew my mind when Katie asked: “How did the wrongful conviction harm you?” Even though I had told my story more times than I could count, no one had ever bothered to ask me about how I was harmed until this conference.

Exonerees and their family members at a Healing Justice retreat. Photo: Magali deVulpillieres.

Exonerees and their family members at a Healing Justice retreat in April 2018.

Sharing my story on the panel helped me realize that I had gotten terribly hurt and traumatized—not just by the horrible crime against me but also by discovering a decade later that the actual perpetrator had not been convicted and instead an innocent person had been sent to prison. But, in the wake of the Ronald Cotton story, Jennifer Thompson was forgotten and blamed. People would always ask Ron, “How could you ever forgive her?” And, ‘her’ would be standing right there next to him, and ‘her’ would be thinking, “I’m not sure if you heard the beginning of the story, but I was almost killed and my attacker went free.”

I believe this panel created a shift in the narrative about wrongful convictions—not just for us as crime survivors, but within the entire Innocence Movement. It made people recognize that for every exoneration, there’s a crime survivor who was the first person to be impacted. Before this panel, we were left at best being ignored, and at worst being blamed.

Because of my relationship with Ron, I had known all along that to achieve total healing it is imperative for us to hear each other’s stories. And if we don’t, we can’t truly understand the total harm done when the criminal justice system failed us all. I couldn’t have progressed in my own recovery had I not been able to hear from Ron about his experience. And I know he would say the same about hearing my parallel journey through this failed criminal justice process.

Jennifer Thompson and Katie Monroe in 2018. Photo: Alicia Maule.

In 2015, Ron and I were given the Special Courage Award from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime. I decided then that it was time to build a national movement to discuss the aftermath and aftercare of wrongful convictions for everyone involved. I believed we could use restorative justice principles to create physically and emotionally safe spaces where people impacted by wrongful convictions could sit together and share their stories. In those spaces, we could engage in collective resilience, collective grief, collective joy and collective healing.

Healing Justice was born out of my own experience. It was born out of my own bone marrow. I believe it could work, and I believe it does.