One night in 1984 a man broke into Jennifer Thompson’s apartment, held a knife to her throat, and raped her.
It might have finished her. But Jennifer Thompson was a determined young lady. Even in the midst of her ordeal, she studied her assailant’s face looking for tattoos or scars, anything she could use to identify him. She resolved, “When and if I survived the attack, I was going to make sure that he was put in prison and he was going to rot.”
Within a few days she identified her rapist from a series of police photos. She picked out the same man from a lineup. Courageously, Jennifer Thompson put her hand on a Bible and testified in court. Based on her testimony, Ronald Cotton was sentenced to prison for life.
Jennifer Thompson celebrated. Now she was rid of her luggage. Ready to go on with life. Or maybe not. Jennifer could not have anticipated the weight of the baggage that she would carry through years of her life because of what happened that horrible night in 1984.
Unbelievably, two years after Ronald Cotton was sentenced to life in prison, he was granted another trial. Still determined that justice be done, Jennifer Thompson took the stand again. This time the defense brought in another suspect. She testified that she had never seen him. Again, Ronald Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. And again, Jennifer Thompson relished the justice.
Eleven years passed. Jennifer Thompson got married and had triplets. She was now well past the nightmare of 1984. But once more she was asked to assist the prosecution. This time they asked her to provide a blood sample for DNA. She agreed, confident that it would only solidify the case against Ronald Cotton. And then the unthinkable happened.
A police detective and the district attorney knocked on Jennifer Thompson’s front door. They told her that DNA testing had proven that Ronald Cotton was not her assailant. Bobby Poole (the man she testified she had never seen before in her life) was the man who had raped her.
Jennifer Thompson helped send the wrong man to prison. Her testimony had stolen eleven years of freedom from Ronald Cotton. She was devastated. “How do I give someone back eleven years?” she asked the district attorney.
Now in addition to the nightmare of having been raped, Jennifer Thompson had to drag around the luggage of her own guilt. She would wrestle with that burden for years.
In a newspaper article with the title “Even the Perfect Witness Can Make a Mistake,” Helen O’Neill told the story of how Jennifer Thompson moved forward in life.
For two years after [learning that Cotton was innocent] Jennifer Thompson never stopped feeling ashamed.
Over and over she wondered: How could she have made such a terrible mistake?
And what of the man whose life she had ruined? All those years, locked away from his family. Now that he was free, did he hate her as much as she hated herself?
Then one day she stopped crying. She knew exactly what to do.
A few weeks later, she drove 50 miles to a church in the town where she was raped.
She had prayed for the strength to face this moment. She had prayed for the strength to face Ronald Cotton.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “If I spent every day for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn’t come close to what I feel.”
Ronald Cotton was calm and quiet.
Finally, he spoke.
“I’m not mad at you,” he said softly. “I’ve never been mad at you. I just want you to have a good life.”
For two hours they sat and talked while their families paced outside. They talked about the pitfalls of memory, the power of faith, the miracle of DNA. They talked about Bobby Poole.
“We were both his victims,” Cotton said, and Thompson nodded in agreement.
As dusk fell, they made their way out of the church. In the parking lot, their families weeping, Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton embraced.