Three Little Words

Title: Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption cot-can_pc
Authors: Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Year Published: 2009
Pages: 298

First Line (of Prologue): Ronald Cotton stands a few rows behind Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, watching as she cranes her head through the crowd, looking for him among the faces of the parents who have come to watch their children play soccer.

I’ll be blunt…

Picking Cotton should be required reading for everyone remotely connected with the justice system.
Picking Cotton should be required reading for everyone who has ever felt wronged.
Picking Cotton should be required reading for everyone who has ever felt remorse.
…or grief.
…or hate.
…or love.

1984. Burlington, NC. Jennifer Thompson is asleep when a man breaks in, wakes her, and then rapes her at knife-point. She gets a good look at him, though. She even talks to him before managing to run off to a neighbor’s house and call the police. At the station, the detective shows her pictures and she identifies Ronald Cotton as her attacker. She then picks him out of a lineup, absolutely sure that he was the man who broke into her home and raped her. The DA’s case is dependent on her testimony, she does very well on the witness stand, and Cotton is found guilty. Thompson, convinced she has identified the correct man, slowly, painstakingly, begins to rebuild her life, while Cotton’s falls apart.

Because Ronald Cotton is innocent.

In Picking Cotton, Erin Torneo does a wonderful job in assembling what is essentially two memoirs into one cohesive, and at times gut wrenching, whole. The first section belongs to Jennifer, and she tells her story in her own words, from her own point of view. From the time of the rape until Ronald is found guilty, Jennifer analyzes not just the crime, but the effect the crime had upon her family, her fiancé, and her own state of mind. The second section is devoted to Ronald’s point of view from the moment he learns he is a person of interest through his 11 years in prison.

While both of these sections are strong on their own, they pale in comparison to the third, where Torneo weaves alternating viewpoints, chapter by chapter, as the separate stories of Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson (by this time she’s actually Thompson-Cannino with 3 children and an adoring husband) spiral closer and closer together. Beginning in 1995 with Ronald’s request for the newly discovered DNA tests to be performed on the evidence from his case, Cotton and Thompson are on a collision course that redefines both their lives. When the test comes back, Cotton’s verdict is the 23rd overturned by the use of DNA testing. And just like in 1984 with the original trial, Jennifer and Ronald’s worlds are turned upside-down once again.

This final section is one of the most powerful stories, and some of the most powerful writing, I have read in the last five or ten years. I quite literally could not put it down and read the last 100 or so pages in a single sitting. Just like in the three-act structure of some fiction novels, this is where everything comes to a head… where Ronald slowly begins to find his feet… where, wracked with guilt and grief, Jennifer slowly begins to come a bit unglued… where, at long last, Ronald and Jennifer finally sit down face to face… and where Ronald says…

“I forgive you” (244)…

…and starts Jennifer down the path to true healing.

I can’t recommend Picking Cotton enough. It isn’t a perfect book by any means (in fact, I think the absence of a 3rd PoV narrative, that of Mike Gauldin, the original police detective, is a glaring oversight), but any book that moves me to tears and teaches me a thing or three about compassion, forgiveness, and hope is worthy of my praise.

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