Seventy Times Seven
by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo
Wow. We Presbyterians (and other mainline Protestants) talk a lot about forgiveness. In general, I think of myself as a pretty forgiving person. Someone is half an hour late for a meeting with me? No problem, it happens. Someone forgets to meet me when or where they said they would? Hey, I understand. I've done it myself. Someone irritates you because of their inability to say "no" - or their ability to say it too readily? Well, we've all been there at one time or another. If we held a grudge for every glitch in communication or every perceived slight that we ever experienced, we would soon be embittered people with very few friends. Lots of us know someone like that. In an effort to avoid their fate, we step up our own practice of forgiveness right away. Then we come across someone who takes forgiveness to a whole new level.
In the summer of 1984, college student Jennifer Thompson was brutally raped at knife point in her apartment in Burlington, North Carolina. She was shattered by the experience, and really did not receive much help from friends or family in processing what had happened to her. She was full of rage and fear, which is understandable. The Burlington police force wanted to act quickly to put the rapist behind bars, and they believed they had their man. Thompson was sure that she identified the right person, even though the defendant, Ron Cotton, insisted on his innocence. The evidence against him was slim, really, but once the ball was rolling the police and the victim were so sure that they had the right person that they refused to see the other possible suspects or the evidence that pointed away from Cotton. Bottom line: Ron Cotton spent 11 years in prison before DNA evidence finally exonerated him.
It is a tragic story, but its outcome could have been worse. Through the 1970s, rape was a capital crime in the state of North Carolina, so Cotton probably would have been executed if the rape had occurred a decade earlier. Cotton had plenty of time to think during his years in jail, and he used the time to earn his GED. He also sang in the prison gospel choir and began to take his faith more seriously. At the time, he believed he would spend the rest of his life in prison, and he wanted to make that life worthwhile in spite of the terrible situation. When Cotton was released, he set about rebuilding his life. He eventually found work, met a woman, and got married.
Jennifer Thompson was still having trouble moving beyond what had happened. Where she had once been consumed by fear and anger, after Cotton was released she was plagued just as much by remorse and guilt. Finally, in an effort to get some closure to the ghastly event that had defined her life for so long, she asked for a meeting with Ron Cotton to ask his forgiveness. That's when the miracle occurred.
Ron Cotton not only forgave Jennifer Thompson, he wished her well and told her his only desire was that they both have good lives. He explained how he did not really blame her for the mistaken identity, and that they were BOTH victims of the true assailant, a guy named Bobby Poole. Jennifer Thompson writes that "Ron forgave me not because I deserved it, but because I needed it, and that's what grace is all about." Oh yeah.
Improbably, Cotton and Thompson went on to become friends. They found they could talk together about things that others people would not understand. They now appear together at criminal justice conferences and give lectures at law schools. They are both very involved in The Innocence Project, a non-profit group that advocates for other people who are wrongfully incarcerated.
The writing in Picking Cotton is not extraordinary, but the voices of Thompson and Cannino come through with sincerity and earnestness. The story is outstanding enough to make the reader forgive some clunky writing. After all, isn't forgiveness what we are supposed to be about? Hats off to Ron Cotton for showing us the way.