Picking Cotton: A story that endures

I saw the news yesterday when my wife sent over a link via email to the website Deadline Hollywood. The headline was very specific, unlike those wedged into small newspaper spaces: “Sidney Kimmel to finance & produce Jessica-Sanders-directed ‘Picking Cotton.'”

The names of the people involved didn’t immediately mean much to me. But the title, “Picking Cotton,” certainly did. It’s one of the most famous criminal cases in the history of the community where I live — Alamance County in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. The proposed film is about a true case that began in the 1980s and continues to resonate. In fact, the book “Picking Cotton” was published and became a New York Times bestseller in 2009. I was a little surprised it took this long to make a film based on it. When the book was released in 2009, it coincided with a report by the long-running and immensely popular TV news magazine “60 Minutes” about the case. About the only Alamance County linked case more well-known is that of convicted arsenic poisoner Blanche Moore, who remains the oldest woman on North Carolina’s Death Row.

The story of Ronald Cotton is almost its equal. CBS legend Lesley Stahl handled the story in 2009.

My wife, a reporter for the Burlington Times-News at the time, filed a story about the “60 Minutes” appearance.

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“Picking Cotton” is the story of a man wrongly accused of rape. The problem occurred when the victim in the 1984 attack, a then-Elon College student named Jennifer Thompson, incorrectly identified Ronald Cotton as her tormentor. That was 1984. Cotton spent 11 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence in 1995. Thompson is forced to come to grips with the mistake and her guilt over making the mistake. Later she and Cotton become friends and partners in battling similar injustices where the innocent are in jail. It’s an amazing story about a profound journey that has impacted criminal cases in North Carolina ever since. The Innocence Project in the state owes a debt to this compelling story. As a result, Thompson was named in 2016 as North Carolinian of the Year by the North Carolina Press Association. Thompson and Cotton has appeared together in speaking engagements / presentations at Elon University, around the state and nation.

To coincide with the “60 Minutes” report in March of 2009, I wrote a column about the book, “Picking Cotton.” I’m posting it below. It was headlined, “Redemption and then some.” And boy do I look young in that photo.

Here goes . . .

Ronald Cotton of Burlington spent 11 years of his life in state prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Most people in Alamance County who pay much attention to news already know it. In the handful of legal or criminal cases that define the area’s history, this one is likely to reside in the top 10 (maybe change to top five in hindsight).

So most might assume there’s not much new to report about the history-making rape case in which a now former Elon College student in 1984 selected the wrong man from a police lineup and then did it again during a second trial in which she was additionally confronted by the man who actually committed the crime and failed to recognize him.

Yes, Ronald Cotton was 24 years old when he was found guilty by an Alamance County jury after only 45 minutes of deliberations. He was released from prison in 1995 and cleared of any wrongdoing in what has to be one of the aftershocks from the O.J. Simpson murder trial. A then little-known or used technique called DNA testing came into vogue during that high-profile trial and filtered right here to Alamance County. It proved not only that Cotton wasn’t the man who raped two women — including the former Jennifer Thompson in her Burlington apartment — it also identified Bobby Leon Poole as the man who did.

Those are the highlights. There are plenty more legal technicalities, not to mention dozens of questions as to why and how things turned out as they did. Most have been written about in the Times-News or other publications. Defense attorneys Rich Rosen and Tom Lambeth — the latter now an Alamance County District Court judge — both raised their profiles as a result of the case. Cotton, in fact, was there the day Lambeth was sworn in as a judge in 2007.

So what more is there to know?

As it turns out, a lot.

Interest in the case was resurrected last week when a book co-authored by by the two principles was released. “Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption” was told by Cotton and the accuser-turned-friend, Jennifer Thompson-Camino to Erin Torneo. The CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” profiles the case tonight (March 8, 2009).

That the story endures is no surprise. The true saga of a man wronged by the judicial system who fights his way to freedom and a new life has long held appeal. What sets this one apart is the collaboration between Thompson and Cotton, which unfurls  a dark but human tapestry of fear, hatred, confusion, frustration, mistrust, faith and ultimately hope creating a strong bond between two unlikely friends.

The two lives on seemingly parallel courses become intertwined in the days after the most horrific night of Thompson’s life. In the book, she describes details of her attack and the subsequent investigation by Burlington police, opening her emotions for inspection in the process. She recounts giving her description of of the attacker and the nerve-wracking visit to the old police station for a lineup of suspects where she was in the same room with the row of men, including the one she would come to know as Ronald Cotton. Once she settled on her choice, Thompson became certain of its veracity.

From that point, there was no turning back. Cotton, in her mind, would from that point be the monster who harmed her beyond repair.

Cotton’s story is no less harrowing. As he’s taken in for questioning  by police, he remains confident he will be freed by the afternoon after this horrible mix-up is discovered. He wouldn’t be a free man again until 1995.

Cotton’s story is terrifying because it reveals how easily a mistake can be made and the dire consequences. The stakes are high and the people in position to make a difference are hardened to protests of innocence by those they take into custody. To Cotton’s frustration, authorities tune him out.

Once Cotton’s innocence is established, Thompson is devastated by her mistake. In making amends she again changes the course of her life — becoming an advocate for justice. On this journey she walks arm in arm with the man she doomed to prison for so many years.

The book isn’t kind to Burlington or the legal machinations of Alamance County. Many in the judicial system are criticized but given anonymity or false names. Burlington is also described as a “college town,” which is hardly an accurate description of this proud working class community.

But there are heroes, too. Mike Gauldin, an investigator on the case who retired as police chief in 2007, is among them as are Lambeth, Rosen and District Attorney Rob Johnson, was an assistant district attorney at the time.

The book connects, though, because not only do Thompson and Cotton put their scars out there for all to see, it also illustrates that from great wrong tremendous growth and deeds can follow.

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