In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old white female student attending Elon College in North Carolina. One night, an African-American man broke into her house during the night and raped her. As he assaulted her, she memorized everything she could about her attacker, anything she could use to identify him, with the intent to survive and imprison him for his crime. Thompson contacted police and gave a description of her attacker, from which a composite sketch was drawn. Her description seemed to fit Ronald Cotton, the man who was eventually imprisoned 11 years for this crime. Cotton had had several minor scrapes with the law, though all corresponding charges had been dismissed. Cotton’s name and mug shot, however, were still placed on file.
After her attack, investigators showed Thompson a number of photos of possible suspects. In their interview on the Today Show, Thompson admitted that her mind was trying to find the person in the group who most closely resembled the sketch she had helped the police artist draw, rather than her actual attacker. Thompson picked Cotton not only from the suspect photos, but also in a physical lineup, stating she was “100 percent certain” he was her attacker.
Cotton was sentenced and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. During many of those years in prison, Cotton actually knew who the real rapist was; a man by the name of Bobby Poole, and he’d landed in the same prison as Cotton. According to the article, “the two bore a striking physical resemblance to one another, and to the police sketch of Thompson’s attacker.”
With this information Cotton was granted a retrial three years after his initial imprisonment, but Thompson’s memory by now had firmly replaced her rapist’s face with that of Cotton. When she saw both Poole and Cotton in the same courtroom, she again identified Cotton as her rapist with absolute certainty.
Cotton continued to serve his sentence, trying to keep himself together, which he stated “wasn’t easy at all. I was missing my family, my loved ones. I took it day to day and hoped that true justice would prevail and open a door for me.” In 1995, when watching the O.J. Simpson trial, Cotton learned about the use of DNA evidence and contacted his attorneys, who were able to prove, after recovering one tiny sample of sperm from Thompson's rape kit, that Cotton was innocent and Poole was guilty. Cotton was a free man and began the difficult task of creating a new life. Despite receiving money in compensation from the state of North Carolina, he worked two jobs to get himself back on his feet.
Thompson was “torn apart by the revelation that her dead-certain testimony had imprisoned an innocent man” and was terrified that he was going to seek vengeance on her and her family. She lived in fear of retaliation for two years before finally reaching out to Cotton. When they met, he quickly relieved her of her guilt, simply stating that he had forgiven her long ago.
Conflict theorists would have a field day with this. How do you think they would respond? Do you think that this situation occurred because we as a society are taught to expect aggressive criminal behavior from black men, or was it simply a case of mistaken identity? What could be said that caused not only this man’s wrongful conviction, but his continued imprisonment for over a decade? Is it an irreparable problem with our criminal justice system, an unfortunate but unavoidable and, perhaps, necessary consequence - as a structural functionalist would view it -or is it a form of predictable, unjust discrimination? How would you explain how Cotton was so easily prosecuted and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit? Can an argument be made that he would have received the same sentence had he been a white man, or if the victim had not been a white woman? Would this be such a "heart-warming story" if Cotton had been a white man wrongfully imprisoned, or is this a crime of injustice and an example of the failure and racism inherent in our criminal justice system?
“She sent him to jail for rape; now they’re friends.”