Editor’s note: In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was held at knifepoint and raped. Ronald Cotton was arrested three days later and charged with Thompson’s rape. Cotton was convicted in January 1985, but 10 years later, DNA evidence exonerated him. Thompson’s case was the first time DNA evidence was used to both prove someone innocent and solve a crime at the same time. DNA identified Bobby Pool as the man who actually raped Thompson. He was never prosecuted for her rape, because he was already in prison for another rape conviction. Pool was incarcerated about 90 days after Cotton. They worked in the same kitchen and lived in the same dorm. Pool died of brain cancer in prison in 1998. Here, Thompson, who has kindled a close relationship with Cotton since then, talks with HLN about the case.
HLN: Have you healed emotionally from everything you have been through?
Jennifer Thompson: You know, I don’t know. I don’t know if you ever really heal completely emotionally from a violent trauma. You find ways to live around it, and live through it, and deal with it. And when those bad moments pop up, you realize that they are coming and you have coping strategies that are healthy. I think that the work I do, has been probably the best catharsis that I have come up with.
HLN: Can you tell me about the work that you do?
JT: I have really been a public advocate for judicial reforms for probably the last 12 years, really strongly. It’s been more intense in the last three years with the publishing of the book. But, for the last 12 years I have gone all across North America, and now into Europe, doing work concerning issues of eyewitness identification problems, human memory, and the frailty of human memory. A lot of work about reform as it relates to race and class in the American judicial system. Also, issues of sexual violence against women. How do we, as women, find our power and our voices again after trauma? And also work about forgiveness and the healing aspects of forgiveness. And how do we as a people overcome trauma and tragedy and heal?
HLN: How did it feel when rape suspect Ronald Cotton was convicted? Did it give you closure at the time?
JT:: I think we overdo that word closure, just like we overuse the word control … I think it gave me validation perhaps, it gave me a sense of what I consider justice and victory and triumph. That the good person won and the bad person didn’t. And so on that level, yes, it gave me a sense of, honestly it gave me a sense of joy, that he was going to suffer and die in prison.
HLN: What emotions did you have when you found out he was innocent?
JT:: Shame and guilt and fear and … confusion, there was a range of emotions to be honest with you, and they all came at me at the same time. I think the shame and the guilt were paralyzing, they were truly paralyzing. But the fear that he was coming out angry and bitter and seeking revenge, was such a strong emotion. Because at this point I was a mother, and obviously my children’s well-being and safety was an issue for me. There was a lot of emotion that I felt at that time.
HLN: Was it a relief when law enforcement found out who the real rapist was?
JT: Well, I found out that Ronald was innocent and also found out who the guilty person was in the same minute. So, this all came at me very quickly. This was the first time in history that they had used the DNA for both purposes at the same time. So it became quite a story. Ronald was North Carolina’s first DNA exoneree, first exoneree period, in North Carolina. This was relatively new. I think he was the 23rd in the United States. This was a huge case and it was all over the papers, all over the news, it was in all of the magazines. And of course when you turn on the news the question was, "Have you talked to the girl, where’s the girl?" So, you know it was terrifying.
HLN: How do you feel about the man who raped you, Bobby Pool?
JT: Bobby Pool is dead. I don’t have to feel anyway about him. Prior to his death, I had to realize he was a human being and along the way someone broke him. That helped me forgive him.
HLN: What lessons do you hope people have learned from this situation?
JT: Well, you know lessons are very personal. So it all depends on what your personal history is as to the lesson you’ll gain. I think the two lessons that I hope the average reader out there can get from our story is, A: Mistakes in the system are not rare. It happens everyday; it happens everyday to somebody who is typically poor and a minority. And you can get caught up in the system and you find yourself in a place where you can’t get out of it and particularly if you’re poor, and if you’re a minority.
So, I think that we really do have to broaden our scopes and our vision as to who gets caught in this thing. And the other big lesson in the story is that regardless of whatever happens to you in your lifetime, there are ways that we can survive and be better and stronger and none of it has to do with violence and hatred and war and death and execution. We can heal.
HLN: Looking back now, on the whole big picture, how do you feel about it now? What emotions do you have? Is it still hard to think about?
JT: Well, the way I feel about it is kind of a bittersweet issue. Obviously what happened to me and what happened to Ronald was a tragedy, and it was awful and you wouldn’t want anyone to ever go through it. But, the reality is it did. And Ronald and I have often said and continue to say we wouldn’t change what happened to us because we are stronger and better people. I’m blessed for his friendship. And what we have been able to do that’s good and powerful and positive, far outweighs the negative that happened to us. We are very proud of the work that we get to do and our friendship, and we also feel very blessed.
HLN: Let’s talk about Ronald. How did it go when you first reached out to him after he had been exonerated?
JT: Well, it took me two years to reach out to him. He was exonerated in ’95, and the following summer I was approached by a producer, out of Boston, to be interviewed for a documentary about the fallibility of eyewitness ID and human memory and of course I was not anywhere interested in doing this, but I agreed to do it simply because I felt like if my story was told, it should be me telling it. So, it was after hearing myself and hearing Ronald in the documentary, I realized that I had to go and talk to this man. And what I anticipated happening was of course him hating me and being angry at me and threatening me, and that is what I expected.
And so what happened was exactly the opposite. Ronald was immediate with his forgiveness and his graciousness and his mercy and his kindness. And what I learned from that experience is: Here had been this man I had just hated, I mean, prayed for him to die, and he was just this incredible human being and we immediately became friends that afternoon.
We had been talking and I asked for him to forgive me and he did, we became friends. And so our journey through all of this, since 1984, has been quite a parallel journey. He is a wonderful person, he is a very dear friend of mine. I love him very much. We travel together. We are traveling to Spain together in the near future. It’s very unique, but it’s all an incredible gift.
Thompson and Cotton wrote a book about their journey titled: "Picking Cotton."