Ronald Cotton was exonerated in 1995, after spending over 10 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. His convictions were based largely on an eyewitness misidentification made by one of the victims, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. Cotton and Thompson-Cannino are now good friends and leading advocates for eyewitness identification reform.
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In July 1984, an assailant broke into Jennifer Thompson-Cannino’s apartment and sexually assaulted her; later that night, the assailant broke into another apartment and sexually assaulted a second woman. Thompson-Cannino, then a 22-year-old college student, made every effort to study the perpetrator’s face while he was assaulting her. As she says on 60 Minutes, “I was just trying to pay attention to a detail, so that if I survived…I’d be able to help the police catch him.”
Investigation and Trial
Thompson-Cannino first chose Ronald Cotton as her attacker in a photo lineup. Soon after, she chose him again in a live lineup – she was 100 percent sure she had the right man. The evidence at trial included a flashlight found in Cotton’s home that resembled one used by the assailant and rubber from Cotton’s shoe that was consistent with rubber found at one of the crime scenes, but overwhelmingly the evidence rested on Thompson-Cannino’s identification.
In January 1985, Cotton was convicted by a jury of one count of rape and one count of burglary. In a second trial, in November 1987, Cotton was convicted of both rapes and two counts of burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison plus fifty-four years.
Cotton was unsuccessful overturning his conviction in several appeals. But in the spring of 1995, his case was given a major break: the Burlington Police Department turned over all evidence, which included the assailant’s semen for DNA testing, to the defense.
The samples from one victim were tested and showed no match to Cotton. At the defense’s request, the results were sent to the State Bureau of Investigation’s DNA database and the database showed a match with the convict who had earlier confessed to the crime to a fellow inmate in prison.
When the DNA test results were reported in May 1995, the district attorney and the defense motioned to dismiss all charges. On June 30, 1995, Cotton was officially cleared of all charges and released from prison. In July 1995, the governor of North Carolina officially pardoned Cotton. Cotton had served 10.5 years in prison.
Life after Exoneration
Soon after his release, Cotton got a job in the warehouse of LabCorp, the company that tested the DNA evidence that proved his innocence. He also married, had a child, and bought a piece of land to live on. He received $110,000 from the state for his wrongful conviction.
Thompson-Cannino and Cotton met for the first time after his exoneration. Thompson-Cannino states, “I just started to sob. I looked at him and I said, ‘If I spent every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of my life telling you that I’m sorry, can you ever forgive me?’ He did the one thing that I never imagined. He started to cry and he said, ‘Jennifer, I forgave you years ago.’”
Cotton and Thompson-Cannino are now good friends. They travel around the country working to spread the word about wrongful convictions and reforms – especially for eyewitness identification procedures – that can prevent future injustice.