Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton's Picking Cotton as a Portrayal of Flawed Justice System

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One of the priorities of the criminal justice system is to punish the guilty and ensure justice. Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption is a true story that educates its audience on the failings of the criminal justice system, specifically from the shortcomings of the police investigative process, eyewitness identification, and racism. Picking Cotton brings light onto the different errors that contribute to wrongful convictions.

Part 1 of the memoir is seen entirely from Jennifer Thompson-Cannino’s point of view: she was a normal 22 year old girl going to college living in Burlington, North Carolina, when one night, her apartment was broken into and she was raped at knife point. During the attack, Jennifer was able to keep her eyes open and memorize the assailant's facial and bodily features. She was able to escape with her life and present the information she collected to her local officers. With confidence from the detectives and identifying him in a line-up, Ronald Cotton soon became the prime suspect and then convicted. Part 1 ends with Ronald going to prison and Jennifer hoping and praying that he will suffer while he is incarcerated then burn in hell. Her emotions alternate between helplessness and rage to shame and guilt.

Part 2 is written from Ronald Cotton’s point of view. He first gives an account of his youth and background before he describes the details of the night he was accused of Jennifer’s rape. He knew he was innocent, but had little hope of convincing anyone because especially since he was a black man in the south. Ronald fights to survive and he frequently battles with his rage concerning the injustice he’s been subjected to. Ronald Cotton spent 11 years in prison and actively pursued an appeal, but was constantly rejected. DNA evidence proved Ronald Cotton to be innocent and wrongfully convicted. The real attacker turned out to be a man named Bobby Poole.

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After his exoneration, Ronald and Jennifer formed an unlikely friendship on forgiveness that has changed and impacted both their lives. The focus of Part 3 is the unforeseen friendship that sparks the relationship between Jennifer and Ronald. They eventually meet and come to like each other and Ronald forgives Jennifer and feels no ill-will against Jennifer, this information allows her to begin forgiving herself. Later on they begin speaking together at activist events, educating people on wrongful convictions.

One main idea expressed in the novel is eyewitness misidentification. In the article: It's Not You, It's The Law by Shari R. Berkowitz and Naser L. Javaid, it shares with the readers that “decades of scientific studies have revealed that there are numerous factors specific to the eyewitness or the crime (estimator variables) that can affect an eyewitness's ability to accurately identify a perpetrator (e.g., the presence of a weapon, the race(s) of the eyewitness and perpetrator, stress, etc.), as well as factors that the criminal justice system controls (system variables), which can increase the likelihood of an eyewitness making a mistaken identification it real-life cases have shown that eyewitnesses can mistakenly identify an innocent person as a perpetrator (Garrett, 2011; Loftus & Ketcham, 1991). In fact, mistaken identifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions.”

Picking Cotton demonstrates how a contaminated memory can lead to witness misidentification. After a composite sketch was drawn up, Jennifer subconsciously looked for a face that resembled the composite sketch, best, during the lineup. In many cases, victims like Jennifer, contaminate their memory by looking for the next best suspect during a lineup and replacing the face with the one they created during their assault. When Jennifer picked Ronald in the lineup, the detective assured her he was the one which then boosted her confidence, and she then replaced her attacker’s face with Ronald 's. Many Eyewitness misidentifications are unintentional, there are so many variables in place that jeopardize our memory; but even though intentional, it will have a very negative impact on the outcome of a case, which will in turn ruin someone’s life.

I was really surprised with how transcendent the forgiveness in this story was. It is very difficult for me to see forgiveness of this magnitude to be replicated again, especially under the circumstances. If I put myself in the shoes of Ronald Cotton, I would not be willing to sit down with the person who put me away for a little over a decade of my life. Even if it was an accident and her intentions were good, it cost me my peace. As Jennifer was going through the lineup, I was getting frustrated as I knew she was going to choose Ronald, it was like I was watching a movie and wanted to attempt to scream at the main character to stop as if she could hear me. Reading that Ronald got charged while knowing he was innocent was like watching a horror movie. Knowing there’s nothing you can do to change things so you simply watch in horror.

Picking Cotton is very telling of the flaws in our justice system, flaws mounted on people’s inability to be totally objective, unbiased, and rely on their memories. Despite our best intentions, the justice system does fail, especially people of color, and when it does, innocent people can have their lives shattered for acts they did not commit. At the same time, the story is about a victim, who we root for and empathize with. A victim who has undergone a situation like that will do anything she can to make sure her rapist is convicted even if it means relying on faulty memories. However, above all I believe Picking Cotton is an extraordinary story of forgiveness. Just as we hear from the victim and empathize, we also hear from the man that she helped to send to jail, the wrongfully accused. In the end, he is met with an apology and she is met with forgiveness.

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