Ticket to Walk

updated 07/31/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/31/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

LAWYERS IN THE O.J. SIMPSON trial may endlessly debate the worth of DNA testing, but Ronald Cotton is a believer—for the most personal reasons. After spending 11 years in prison for two rapes he didn't commit, the 33-year-old North Carolinian walked free on June 30 after DNA analysis of semen samples taken from the victims proved he couldn't have been the rapist. Now, stepping out the back door of his sister Marietta's two-bedroom brick townhouse in Gibsonville, N.C., Cotton takes a deep, satisfying breath. "I got some good fresh air, something I couldn't get when I wanted it before," he says. "Freedom is a mighty high, I'm telling you."

Particularly when it has been so long in coming. Just a few hours earlier, Cotton had stood in the Alamance County courthouse and listened as Superior Court Judge J.B. Allen dismissed all charges against him. "After so many years you're just up and out, like the snap of your fingers," marvels Cotton. "It's a dream come true."

It is a dream that owes its fulfillment to DNA evidence. Cotton's is the latest in a string of cases to demonstrate the strength of such evidence—either to incriminate or exonerate suspects. Since DNA tests were first accepted as courtroom evidence in 1987, dozens of people have seen their convictions overturned as a result, and the tests are now used in tens of thousands of criminal trials.

For Cotton their incalculable value became apparent this spring. After Cotton's previous attorney failed to win him a second appeal of his rape convictions in 1990, Richard Rosen, a University of North Carolina law professor, took over the case pro bono. Rosen, along with his former student, Burlington, N.C., attorney Thomas Lambeth, began working on Cotton's case in 1992 and spent the next two years conducting their own investigation and filing new motions. In January, the attorneys had the DNA in a sample of Cotton's blood compared with the DNA of the semen that had been taken from one of the rape victims. (Police had preserved refrigerated samples in case they were needed for a new trial.) The results: proof, to the satisfaction of the courts, that Cotton could not have been the rapist. In fact, a comparison of the DNA from the preserved semen with crime files implicated Bobby Leon Poole, 36, already serving a life-plus-30-year sentence in North Carolina for other sexual offenses. He has confessed to the rapes. Ironically, Cotton's attorneys—who were hoping to win a new trial on the basis of claims that evidence had been excluded and his second appeal had been mishandled—were hesitant to submit their client to the DNA tests and warned him he had better not be lying about his innocence. "Ron could have been hammered if his DNA had shown up," says Lambeth. "But he never hesitated. He said, 'How can it hurt me if I haven't done any crime?' "

Not that protests of innocence had helped him before. In July 1984, Cotton, who had dropped out of school in the ninth grade, was working part-time as a cook at a Burlington restaurant. At 22, he had already served time in prison for breaking and entering and for assault with intent to rape. Then, on the night of July 29, 1984, two women living near him were raped in their homes. When police showed them a series of mug shots, one of the women identified Cotton as her attacker. Convicted of that rape in 1985, he was later convicted of the second attack as well, when the other woman also identified him.

All during his time in prison, Cotton never stopped hoping he would be freed. "I developed a big callus on my finger from all the letter writing [to legal-aid organizations]," he says. Although Cotton's lawyers doubt he has any legal recourse, Cotton says he has struggled not to be bitter about his lost 11 years. "I try not to think about the past too much," he says. "I have the right to be angry, but I feel I shouldn't be. That would only make you go and try to retaliate for it."

Instead, he is trying to get used to life on the outside, looking for work and a place to live—and writing letters to a woman he met while in prison through a personal ad in a heavy-metal magazine. 'It's like a newborn baby coming into the world," says Cotton. "I'm like a baby. I've got to start from scratch."

SARAH SKOLNIK in Gibsonville

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