The Wrongful Convictions of Cotton Trials in Picking Cotton

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Although many people put their trust in the justice system, wrongful convictions do occur. Contributing factors can range anywhere from mistakes to factors of race and class. A small percentage of criminal cases involve biological evidence that can be used for DNA testing, but such evidence is often lost or destroyed after a conviction (The Innocence Project). The limited evidence leaves many wrongfully convicted people with a slight chance of proving their innocence. In the memoir Picking Cotton, authors Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Roland Cotton, with Erin Torneo, recount their tragedies that ultimately revealed resilience and forgiveness. Jennifer and Ronald use their past experience to bring about improvement in the criminal justice system. Jennifer is a member of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission, and Ronald speaks about their case at events around the country (The Innocence Project). They strive to raise awareness about the errors of human memory and judgment. The authors included three critical elements: effectiveness of organization, relevant cultural debates and anxieties, and tensions and conflicts to fulfill the purpose of the book and meet the needs of their audience.

In the novel Picking Cotton, (2009) by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo, Jennifer retells the story of her rape, and how she wrongfully identified her attacker as Ronald Cotton. While in college, Jennifer was raped by a man who broke into her apartment while she slept. After escaping, she tried to remember what her attacker looked like to make sure he would be locked up for the crime he committed. At the police station, Jennifer was able to identify Ronald Cotton as her attacker. Ronald refuted the allegations made against him, but Jennifer’s strong insistence after choosing him from the lineup and photos was enough to send him to prison. After eleven years, Ronald found out about DNA testing and pushed his attorney to set another trial. The test ultimately proved his innocence, and Ronald was released after being wrongfully convicted. The person who actually committed the crime was Bobby Leon Poole. Two years later, Jennifer and Ronald met, which led him to forgive her.

Picking Cotton took place in North Carolina during 1984 and on. At that time, racism was still apparent. According to The National Registry of Exonerations, the racial distribution of North Carolina’s population was 75% White American, and 22% African American. The gap between the two races increased the lack of understanding. In Ronald’s case, people assumed he was corrupt and out to get people because of his skin color. The justice system was willing to send another young African American male to prison. For instance, of the 59 exonerations in North Carolina since the 1980s, 75% of them were African Americans, and 97% of the total cases were males (The National Registry of Exonerations). The prosecutor’s evidence at Ronald’s trial included a photo and police lineup identification, and a similar flashlight and piece of rubber from a shoe, which was minimal, but still wrongfully landed him in prison because of a single eyewitness testimony.

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was shocked when she found out that the man she had accused of raping her had been found innocent through DNA evidence. She was confident she picked the right guy after looking at the suspect photos and viewing the lineup. Her situation, however, is not uncommon. According to The National Registry of Exonerations, people have difficulty recognizing individuals from other racial or ethnic groups, which is known as the cross-race effect. This effect is even worse for people in a majority population group since they are not able to notice the minute differences between other races facial features, which they are not familiar with. As in Jennifer’s case, most witnesses assume that the target is present when trying to identify a suspect. If the suspect belongs to another race, the witness may identify someone who looks similar to the face they remember, but not the actual person (The National Registry of Exonerations). Jennifer’s brain made the misinterpretations that led her to identify the wrong man.

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The novel Picking Cotton was cleverly written in first person narration by both Jennifer and Ronald. The alternating sections allow the content of the book to be easily followed by readers and highlight the fact that they were both victims of Bobby Poole. In the first part of the book, Jennifer presented background information on her life as a college student, and referenced to the incident that occurred. Readers learn that Jennifer had her future planned out. Her life, however, took a turn for the worse when she encountered her intruder. This moment in the book is written with absolute detail, giving insight into the thoughts and emotions of Jennifer. During the horrific encounter, Jennifer told herself to think and breathe, while asking “was this how I was going to die…last thing I would see? as she “tumbled into a bottomless and dark hole” (Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, and Torneo, 2009, p. 14). A strong connection is made with the reader as the story is being told personally by Jennifer in an orderly way.

Similarly, Ronald clearly recounts his time in prison from his perspective, illustrating the thoughts and hardships he experienced. Throughout the novel, Ronald takes readers on his journey from his childhood, where he was before the incident, and all the way through his years spent in prison. In the second part of the book, Ronald mentioned how he used to go out and play in the woods with his siblings, and how free he felt when swimming and running around. However, he would soon find out that he would lose his free years of life when serving time for the crime he never committed. While in prison, Ronald felt “like even God had forgotten about [him]…the weight of the world was on [him], sucking [him] down into a darkness [he] didn’t think [he] could swim out of” (Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, and Torneo, 2009, p. 97). Ronald vividly describes his personal struggles when he tried to stay alive in prison, and hold on to the hope that he would eventually be freed.

Both sides of the story were told coherently. The novel depicted the consequences of rape and wrongful conviction while evoking emotions from the audience, leaving readers to sympathize with the pain and suffering of both Jennifer and Ronald as they narrated their tragedy. The authors did an exceptional job at revealing how society treated them when regarding cultural debates and anxieties. They also included continuous examples of what they faced to give their readers a better understanding of how they felt. As a female, Jennifer was looked at differently after she was raped. Her family and friends did not talk about what happened, which made Jennifer feel like she was undesirable and at fault. Jennifer’s mom even asked her if the person who raped her was someone who saw her in her leotard at Spa Lady. When Jennifer faced her boyfriend Paul, he asked why she did not fight back, and if she liked what happened to her. Through Jennifer’s conflicts with the people around her, her emotions were vividly described as she felt herself “[withdraw] deeper into the numb composure that kept [her] functioning” (Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, and Torneo, 2009, p. 22). Instead of getting support, she was left to feel unstable and was labeled promiscuous for an assault that was out of her control.

As an African American male, Ronald was subject to racial profiling and injustice. He was constantly accused of false accusations due to his actions in the past. Before the trial, the police tried to make Ronald seem like he was always a threat to other people, especially white women. Ronald knew that the officers were set on him being guilty since the people around town made him “feel the racism like a pilot light always on in the back of people’s minds…waiting to get turned up” (Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, and Torneo, 2009, p. 84). Even after he was proved innocent, Ronald was still treated unfairly. He had to negotiate the amount of money given to him by the state and was only given ten thousand dollars for every year he spent in prison. In addition, when Jennifer wanted to meet Ronald, her sister was against the idea because she believed Jennifer did him a favor and did not owe him anything since he lived a wrong life and was probably going to end up in jail anyway. Throughout the novel, Jennifer and Ronald were perceived by others to be what they truly were not. These examples of cultural and societal dynamics revealed one of the biggest themes; it is important for people to get to know each other in order to have a better understanding instead of assuming because assumptions ultimately divide people.

The tensions and conflicts that Jennifer and Ronald faced when dealing with their personal struggles throughout the book revealed another significant theme; it is forgiveness that can set someone free and make them realize how resilient they are, not anger. After Jennifer was raped, she felt her life slip out of her hands and believed it would never be the same again. She had trouble going back to her apartment, being alone, and sleeping in the dark. Jennifer had Ronald Cotton’s face fixed into her mind and would see him in nightmares, and prayed for revenge. Even after she eventually got married and started a family, Jennifer felt like she would never be safe. Additionally, Ronald’s life was turned upside down after he was wrongfully convicted. He felt everything he loved slip away as the next eleven years of his life were spent isolated from the world. Ronald could not understand why Jennifer picked him and held so much hate towards him. He felt defeated as he faced “the big double gates [that] slid open, like the mouth to hell opening wide to swallow [him] up” (Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, and Torneo, 2009, p. 96). It was not until Jennifer and Ronald met after everything happened that they were able to find closure for how they felt. Ronald realized that any anger he felt towards the people who put him in jail would not get him out, since “they had been through something and made a mistake…weren’t saying [he] did it because they wanted to hurt [him]” (Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, and Torneo, 2009, p. 170). Instead, he learned to let go of that anger and turn to God, his family, and his lawyers to get him through. Ronald’s forgiveness gave Jennifer the closure she needed to see him for who he actually was, and move on. Jennifer “felt [her] anger with the community begin to drain away” (Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, and Torneo, 2009, p. 249).

Authors Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo of Picking Cotton included three critical elements: effectiveness of organization, relevant cultural debates and anxieties, and tensions and conflicts to fulfill the purpose of the book and meet the needs of their audience. The split narrative style of writing allowed Jennifer and Ronald to give insight on their personal sides of the account, while still integrating the connection between the two of them. Similarly, the relevant cultural debates and anxieties they faced, and the tensions and conflicts ultimately revealed how perseverance and forgiveness are necessary to overcome tragedies.

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