Crime & Courts

Rape victim, wrongly convicted man speak

Jennifer Thompson could survive being raped. But she wasn't sure she could accept sending an innocent man to prison.

"I'd never been ashamed or guilty of being a rape victim. But 11 years of a man's life was gone," Thompson said Tuesday in Wichita.

Thompson's eyewitness testimony of her 1984 rape sent Ronald Cotton to prison on a life sentence, plus 52 years.

After DNA proved Cotton innocent, they would become friends. They would write a book, "Picking Cotton," and travel around the country telling their story, as they did for nearly 400 legal professionals at the Wichita Bar Association's annual Law Day luncheon.

Their story illustrates the top cause of wrongful convictions in the United States — faulty eyewitness testimony.


"You're sending an innocent man to prison," Cotton remembered telling a deputy in Burlington, N.C., as he got in a corrections van leaving the county jail.

"That's my job," Cotton said the deputy answered.

In his prison locker, Cotton kept the composite picture that led to his arrest, drawn from Thompson's detailed description.

One day, Cotton said, he saw the face in the drawing looking back at him across the prison yard.

Bobby Poole was in prison for other sexual attacks.

Cotton said he asked Poole: Did you do this? Poole denied it, but he told other inmates he had raped two women that night, which landed Cotton in prison.

"We got in a fight," Cotton said. "He threw a roundhouse punch, I ducked, then I broke his jaw."

Poole went to the infirmary. Cotton went into administrative segregation.

Cotton said he fashioned a shank, hoping to kill Poole. Then Cotton's father came to visit.

"You say you're innocent, and I believe you," Cotton said his father told him. "But if you kill this man, you're still spending the rest of your life in prison."

New trial

Poole's confession, and evidence that a second rape victim had not identified Cotton, helped Cotton win a new trial.

Thompson said she had studied the man's face who pinned her down, held a knife to her throat and raped her in the early morning hours of July 28, 1984. Later, she would learn another woman a mile away had been raped. Police suspected the same man.

"He had raped our bodies, he had broken our spirits, he had destroyed our souls," she said.

She was 22; Cotton was 21.

Thompson said she was determined she would remember the face of the man who attacked her. She studied his features. She picked Cotton's photo from a lineup. She picked Cotton from an in-person lineup.

Police had told her the suspect may not be there. But she knew what a lineup was.

"I was a 4.0 student," she said. "I knew how to take that test."

During the second trial, a lawyer asked Thompson whether she recognized Bobby Poole.

"I told them I'd never seen that man in my life," she said Tuesday.

Again, she pointed to Cotton. After each conviction, Thompson said the district attorney greeted her with champagne.

"We toasted the system because it had worked for me," she said.

DNA evidence

Thompson got married and became a mother. Her life went on, and she said she relished knowing the man who raped her would not have such a life.

Then in 1995, a DNA test showed the semen taken from her that night belonged to Poole.

Thompson said she felt devastated. She feared Cotton would want to kill her.

Two years later, Thompson agreed to participate in a documentary, "What Jennifer Saw." At the end of the film, she heard Cotton say he knew his accuser was sorry.

"But I want to hear it from her," Cotton said.

Thompson arranged a meeting with Cotton at a church.

"I still saw his face in my nightmares," she said. "How do you change an image that's so wrong?"

Cotton had gotten a job working in a medical laboratory. He'd fallen in love and gotten married. He had a child. He had recovered a life.

Thompson said when they met, she asked for his forgiveness. With tears in his eyes, Cotton took her hand, she said, and told her he'd already forgiven her. Cotton figured they were both Poole's victims.

At that moment, Thompson saw Cotton's real face.

"This man would be the one who taught me how to love," she said.