September 21, 2000
HOW DNA BECAME A PERFECT WITNESS
By HELEN O'NEILL
BURLINGTON, N.C. - Jennifer Thompson was the perfect student, perfect daughter, perfect homecoming queen. And when her perfect world was ripped apart, the petite blonde with the dark expressive eyes became something she could never have imagined:
The perfect witness.
Police had never seen a victim so composed, so determined, so sure.
Just hours after her ordeal, after a doctor swabbed her for semen samples in a hospital, she sat in a police station with Detective Mike Gauldin, combing through photos, working up a composite.
She picked out his eyebrows, his nose, his pencil-thin moustache. She picked out his photo.
A week later, she sat across a table from six men holding numbered cards. She picked number 5. "That's my rapist," she told Gauldin.
In court, she looked directly into the suspect's expressionless face. "He is the man who raped me," she said.
His name was Ronald Cotton and he was her age. Local man, headed down the wrong road, had already been in trouble. Served 18 months in prison for attempted sexual assault.
She was white. He was black. Police knew he liked white women.
When Thompson picked him out of the lineup, everyone was sure they had the right man. Everyone, that is, except Ronald Cotton.
Cotton is tall and handsome, with baby-smooth skin and a warm, engaging smile. Confronted by Thompson, his normal calm failed him.
He was petrified.
"Why are you so sure it was me?" he agonized silently as she told her story in court. But he said nothing, betrayed no emotion.
Cotton's actions and past hadn't helped his case. He was nervous, got his dates mixed up. Alibis didn't check out. A piece of foam was missing from his shoe, similar to a piece found at the crime scene.
But it wasn't circumstantial evidence that brought Ronald Cotton down. It was Jennifer Thompson.
The knife at her throat was cold, the voice menacing.
"Shut up or I'll cut you."
Even as she screamed, even as her attacker pinned her hands behind her, even as her head exploded with revulsion and fear, the 22-year-old college student knew exactly what to do.
She would outsmart her rapist. She would remember everything: his voice, his hair, his leering eyes. She would trick him into turning on a light, study his features for scars, tattoos, anything to help identify him later.
In the terror of a summer night, Thompson made a vow. She would survive. She would track down this stranger, and if she couldn't kill him, she would do the next best thing, send him to prison for the rest of his life.
In court Cotton could feel the jury sympathize. He sympathized himself. In terror, he watched as the system labelled him a rapist. I'm 22 years old, he thought, and my life is over.
On Jan. 17, 1985, the day Cotton was sentenced to life, Thompson toasted her victory with champagne.
In prison, Cotton spent his nights writing letters to lawyers, newspapers, anyone who would listen. He spent his days pounding the punching bag. He joined the prison choir. He read the Bible. He tried to believe what his father kept telling him - that someday justice would prevail.
One day, about a year after Cotton was convicted, another man joined him working in the prison kitchen. His name was Bobby Poole. He was serving consecutive life sentences for a series of brutal rapes.
And he was bragging that Cotton was doing some of his time.
Cotton hated Poole, even planned to kill him. Cotton's father begged him not to. Put your faith in God, his father said. If you kill Bobby Poole, then you really do belong behind these bars.
So Cotton put his faith in God. And when he learned he had won a second trial, his heart filled with hope.
Another woman had been raped just an hour after Thompson: same Burlington neighbourhood, same kind of attack. Police were sure it was the same man. An appeals court had ruled that evidence relating to the second victim should have been allowed in the first trial.
At the new trial, witnesses would get a look at Poole, who was subpoenaed by Cotton's lawyer. Finally, Cotton thought, he would be set free.
He had forgotten the power of Jennifer Thompson.
Back on the stand, she looked directly at Poole and directly at Cotton. Cotton is the man who raped me, she told the jury.
The second victim was less convincing, but she pointed to him too.
Ronald Cotton hung his head. He had no words left inside him. The court fell silent as he was sentenced to a second life term.
The knock on the door of her Winston-Salem home came out of the blue. The detective hadn't just dropped by to say hello. It had been 11 years.
Standing in Thompson's kitchen, Gauldin struggled to break the news.
"Jennifer," he said. "You were wrong. Ronald Cotton didn't rape you. It was Bobby Poole."
There was new evidence, Gauldin said. DNA tests. New scientific proof that hadn't been available before.
Eleven years of nightmares, of Cotton's face taunting her in the dark. Eleven years of struggling to move on, of building a life with her husband and children. Eleven years of being wrong. There must be some mistake.
Ronald Cotton was the man she had fled from that terrible summer night, wrapped only in a blanket, collapsing on a neighbour's porch. Ronald Cotton was the man who had invaded her body, her mind, her life. How could she have been wrong?
Gauldin tried to comfort her, pointing out that others had also been at fault: two juries, two judges, detectives, himself. The system failed when it condemned Ronald Cotton, Gauldin said, but it was about to be set right.
In the end, Gauldin told Thompson, the system worked. An innocent man would be freed. Ronald Cotton, Gauldin said, is a very lucky man.
"How do I give someone back 11 years?" she cried.
For two years after Gauldin's visit, she never stopped feeling ashamed. What of the man whose life she had ruined? Now that he was free, did he hate her as much as she hated herself?
One day, she stopped crying. She knew exactly what to do. Gauldin knew as soon as she called. "You want to meet Ronald Cotton," he said.
A few weeks later, she drove 80 kilometres to a church in the town where she was raped. She asked her husband and the pastor to leave. Trembling, she opened the door.
"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. Thompson thought he seemed so very tall. 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."
Tears falling, Thompson looked into his eyes and knew she would never see him in her nightmares again.
For two hours they sat and talked while their families paced outside. She asked him about prison. He asked why she had been so sure.
I don't know, was all she could say. You just looked like the man who raped me. But she knew that wasn't good enough. The only resemblance between Cotton and Poole is that they are both black men.
They talked about the pitfalls of memory, the power of faith, the miracle of DNA. They talked about the torturous journey that had brought them together. They talked about Bobby Poole. We were both his victims, Cotton said, and Thompson nodded.
As dusk fell, they made their way out of the church. In the parking lot, their families weeping, Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton embraced for a long, long time.
A few days after meeting Cotton, Thompson wrote to Poole in prison. She asked if he would meet her. Poole never responded. He died of cancer in prison earlier this year.
Thompson has become an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, using her new celebrity to talk about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Now 38, the mother of triplets appears frequently on TV talk-shows.
She talks often with Cotton, whose first job after his release was with the DNA company that conducted the tests that exonerated him. He now works for a company that makes insulation. He bought a house in Mebane, 100 kilometres east of Winston-Salem. He married a co-worker. They have a baby girl, Raven.
One day Ronald Cotton will introduce his daughter to Jennifer Thompson. He will tell her that the woman who was once the perfect witness is now his friend.