Twenty years ago, Jennifer Thompson was a college student when she was sexually assaulted in her North Carolina apartment and burglarized. The following month, Thompson identified Ronald Cotton as the assailant and he was eventually convicted and sentenced to life plus fifty-four years. Cotton remained behind bars for a decade until DNA testing proved his innocence and identified the real perpetrator as Bobby Pool. The DNA testing also revealed that Thompson had misidentified her attacker. Thompson describes the traumatic experience of the attack and the haunting effects of wrongful conviction in an op-ed that appeared in Sunday’s edition of The Hill. She writes:
My rage and hatred had been misplaced. I was wrong. I had sent an innocent man to prison. A third of his life was over, and the shame, guilt and fear began to suffocate me. I had let down everyone — the police department, the district attorney’s office, the community, the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole, and especially Ronald Cotton and his family.
Several years after Ronald was freed, I received a phone call from Bobby Poole’s last victim. I remember hearing her story about what happened to her and realizing that we all had left him on the streets to commit further crimes – rapes — that we possibly could have prevented if Ronald had not been locked up for something he had never done. The knowledge that Mr. Poole had been left at liberty to hurt other women paralyzed me and sent me into a backward spiral that took years to recover from.
This journey has taught me that the impact of wrongful convictions goes so much further than a victim and the wrongfully convicted. The pool of victims from 1984 was huge – me, Ron, the police department, our families, and the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole all suffered.
In the years following Cotton’s release, he and Thompson forged an unlikely friendship and co-author the memoir Picking Cotton, about the harrowing experience of Thompson’s misidentification. Her experience as a victim and the role she played in Cotton’s wrongful conviction has shed light on the need for legislation to protect the innocent. Thompson writes:
The Justice for All Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress, allows men like Ronald to obtain post-conviction DNA testing that can lead to their freedom and to the conviction of the guilty. Without access to such testing, innocent men will remain in prison, real perpetrators will remain free and new victims will have to experience the same horrors and indignities that I did. I urge Congress to pass the Justice For All Act now so that we can live in a world where the truly guilty are behind bars and the innocent are free.