by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino
March of 1995 began like any other month for me. The days were filled with chasing soon to be five year-old triplets, washing hundreds of pounds of laundry, kissing skinned knees and picking up toys, until the phone rang. Captain Mike Gauldin, the detective who worked my case after a man broke into my apartment when I was a twenty-two year-old college student and raped me at knifepoint in Burlington, N.C. wanted to come see me with Rob Johnson, then the assistant D.A. of Alamance County.
They arrived before lunch and we sat on the deck enjoying the spring sunshine. We talked about the weather, the kids, current events, and then quickly the topic changed. Ronald Cotton, the man sent away for life for attacking me, wanted a DNA test. They needed new blood drawn because my sample from the eleven year-old rape kit had deteriorated.
I had already sat through two trials and I was furious, but I didn’t hesitate. “Let’s go to the lab right now,” I responded. Within hours Mike Gauldin and Rob Johnson were headed to the SBI labs with my vial of blood. I knew the tests would show what I had known all along: that Ronald Cotton was a monster. It was Ronald Cotton who threatened to kill me, who had chased me through the rain that night while I fled for my life. And it was Ronald Cotton who I saw every night in my nightmares, who I prayed God would have killed, and who I hated each and every day of the last eleven years.
But when Mike Gauldin and Rob Johnson stood in my kitchen in June of 1995, they told me we were wrong. It was not Ronald’s DNA found in the rape kit, in fact, it was a man named Bobby Poole, a serial rapist who had attacked and raped over a half dozen other women that summer of 1984.
With the delivery of the DNA results came an overwhelming shame and guilt. My mind began to question everything I had believed in. I pulled away from the world as I knew it; I had no answers. Over four thousand days of a man’s life were gone and nothing I could do would ever change that. Eleven birthdays, eleven Christmas mornings—gone. I placed the burden on my shoulders and began the slow process of moving through my days.
By the spring of 1997, the psychological toll forced me to act. In a small church no more then a few miles from where I had been brutally raped, I met Ronald and struggled for words I could say to him. How completely inadequate “I’m sorry” seemed. As Ronald and his new wife, Robbin, came into the room I began to cry and shake. “Ronald, if I spent the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am it wouldn’t be enough,” I said. Ronald immediately took my hands and replied, “I forgive you. I want you to be happy and live a good life. Don’t look over your shoulders thinking I will be there because I won’t.”
For the first time, I looked into Ronald Cotton’s eyes and saw a compassionate man who gave me a gift of healing by forgiving me. I also saw a victim of a flawed system. If California’s Senate Bill 756 can help fix that system by putting better practices and procedures into place for eyewitness identification, we reduce the risk of wrongful convictions and mistakes like the one I made. A mistake I never saw coming.
Jennifer Thompson-Cannino lives in Winston-Salem, N.C. She is currently working on PICKING COTTON with Ronald Cotton and writer Erin Torneo. It will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2008.