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Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption Hardcover – March 3, 2009

4.6 out of 5 stars 264 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Few stories of wrongful convictions have happy endings, but the one told by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Cannino is far different. It is the powerful account of violence, rage, redemption, and, ultimately, forgiveness.” ―John Grisham

“This book will break your heart and lift it up again...a touching and beautiful example of the power of faith and forgiveness. Its message of hope should reverberate far beyond the halls of justice.” ―Sr. Helen Prejean, csj, author of Dead Man Walking

“What happened in this book will change what you think of the criminal justice system in this country, and challenge you to help fix it. Each of them tells an extraordinary story about crime, punishment and exoneration, but it's their shared spiritual journey toward reconciliation and forgiveness that is even more compelling and profound.” ―Barry C. Scheck, Co-Founder and Co-Director of The Innocence Project®

“Few people have done more to put a human face on issues involving wrongful convictions than Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. Yet through their shared pain, they have been able to forge a friendship that most of us search our lives for.” ―Janet Reno, Former U.S. Attorney General

“[A] remarkable testament...powerful...A MUST read.” ―Studs Terkel

About the Author

JENNIFER THOMPSON-CANNINO lives in North Carolina with her family. She speaks frequently about the need for judicial reform, and is a member of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission, the advisory committee for Active Voices, and the Constitution Project. Her op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, the Durham-Herald Sun, and the Tallahassee Democrat.

RONALD COTTON lives with his wife and daughter in North Carolina. He has spoken at various schools and conferences including Washington and Lee University, University of Nevada Las Vegas, Georgetown Law School, and the Community March for Justice for Troy Anthony Davis in Savannah, GA.

ERIN TORNEO is a Los Angeles-based writer. She was a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts Nonfiction Fellow.

The authors received the 2008 Soros Justice Media Fellowship for PICKING COTTON.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st Printing edition (March 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312376537
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312376536
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (264 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #88,729 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
In 1984 a college student woke up in her Burlington, North Carolina, apartment to find a young black man in her bed who intended to rape her. Because Jennifer Thompson was about half the size of the man she faced, and was already pinned down by his weight by the time she awoke, she recognized that any physical defense she presented would only worsen her situation. Jennifer, however, was not prepared to give up that easily. As the man began raping her she made a conscious effort to study his face and everything about him so that she would be able to work as closely as possible with the police on his capture. She even talked him into interrupting the rape long enough for her to escape the apartment and run for help.

Jennifer's attention to detail resulted in the well-executed police artist sketch that would lead to the quick arrest of Ronald Cotton, a local man, as the man who raped her and another woman on the same night.

Cotton was not at all worried when his family told him the Burlington Police Department wanted to speak with him in connection with the two rapes. He knew he had a rock-solid alibi for the night in question, so he drove himself to the police station in order to prove that he had nothing to do with either crime. Unfortunately for Cotton, he got his dates mixed up, making his supposed alibi worthless, and he was charged with both rapes.

The trial jury recognized Cotton's resemblance to the police sketch and considered Thompson to be an exceptional witness because of her decision to concentrate on her assailant even as the assault against her was happening. Her strong trial testimony, during which she appeared to be absolutely certain of Cotton's guilt, was all the jury needed to convict Cotton of her rape, and they quickly did just that.
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Format: Hardcover
Crime victims often say that about their assailant and often they are wrong. Single witness identification cases are the bane of the criminal justice system and every year more and more innocent men are freed from prison by irrefutable scientific evidence that may not have been available at the time of their convictions. Well and good, but since the overwhelming majority of cases do not involve DNA, do not involve trace evidence of any kind, there is no way of knowing how many innocent people still languish in prison, put there on the strength of a single eyewitness, an honest person trying to get it right who nonetheless got it wrong with tragic consequences.

Ronald Cotton did not rape Jennifer Thompson. She was sure he did-she would never forget that face-and two separate juries found her identification so compelling that Mr.Cotton was twice convicted and sentenced to life. He was exonerated by DNA after eleven long years in prison. "Picking Cotton", co-authored by both victims, is more than just another tale of a misfiring justice system. It is also a powerful story of grace and forgiveness. Not only has Mr. Cotton forgiven Ms. Thompson for her mistaken identification of him, but he has become her friend. He truly is a remarkable man. Ms. Thompson is also quite remarkable. She travels the country with Mr. Cotton, telling their story, and warning of the dangers of identification testimony. She has championed changes in identification procedures used by police to make them more fair and has seen such changes enacted in her home state of North Carolina, the scene of the crime. "Picking Cotton" is a cautionary tale that should be required reading in every police academy and law school in the country.
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Format: Hardcover
Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton is the well told story of the two authors. Jennifer was a college student in 1984 when a knife-wielding man broke into her apartment and raped her. She works to remember her assailant so she can identify him. She identifies Ronald Cotton. Due to appeals, Jennifer is staunch in her identification of Cotton through a second trial after which Cotton is sentenced to Life Imprisonment plus 54 years. Because of the OJ Simpson murder trial, Cotton learns of a new test that may prove the innocence he has professed from the night he turned himself into the police "to straighten out this situation." The new test is DNA. After 11 years in prison, Cotton is exonerated through a combination of the DNA test results and the confession of the rapist. The story could have ended there, but does not. Cotton proves to be a true Christian in forgiving the woman he could have hated for the rest of her life. As profound as Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking. Two admirable people making the world more just.

Through the account, we understand Jennifer's anquish and sense of violation. From the beginning, Ron seems a remarkable person never bitter about his circumstances, but still missing parts of life many would take for granted such as birthdays, anniversaries, funerals.

A documentary for PBS is made about Cotton's case. At the end, he questions that Jennifer has never contacted him. When she does (after watching the documentary) she is surprised by his acceptance of her. Eventually, the two work together on other cases of injustice throughout the United States.

The book presents serious questions about the criminal justice system - especially the validity of eyewitnesses. No easy answers. Just two people now working together to change the world one case at a time.

On par with Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking.
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