Mistaken Identity

updated 08/14/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jennifer Thompson had a recurring nightmare. She saw a man's face, one she had seen in the dim light of her stereo, and he was holding a knife at her throat as she lay in bed. Ronald Cotton had a dream too. For 11 years he lay on his bunk in a cell block and dreamed he was getting out. But his dream was Thompson's nightmare: She had identified him as her rapist. And then Ronald Cotton was freed.

In June, on the fifth anniversary of Cotton's release, Thompson was still struggling with a different kind of nightmare—that men like Cotton might face life in prison, or even death, because of the testimony of a single eyewitness, like her. Today, whether sharing her story on talk shows or appearing at press conferences to protest a death penalty case, she still breaks down as she recalls how she had felt so certain when she picked Cotton from a lineup and how DNA tests later proved her irrefutably wrong. "Even under the best circumstances, without prejudice, we can make mistakes," says Thompson. "We can't make that kind of mistake when putting someone to death."

Such frightening stories have led to increasing controversy about the death penalty. A Columbia University report found that 68 percent of death sentences imposed between 1973 and 1995 were overturned. Some 70 people in the U.S. and Canada, many jailed for rape, have been exonerated in the past decade because of DNA tests. Prompted by 13 recent cases in which people on death row in Illinois were cleared by new evidence, Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in that state. And Congress is now considering the Innocence Protection Act, a bill that would give all prisoners access to DNA testing. "In Jennifer's case we learned so much about eyewitness fallibility that the death penalty isn't an option," says Lawrence Marshall of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, which helps clear innocent prisoners. "It's reckless."

A lot has changed for Thompson, who grew up in a relatively crime-free world and who once favored the death penalty. The second of four children, Thompson was the sheltered daughter of an executive and a housewife. She was raised in the countryside around Winston-Salem, N.C., and was chosen homecoming queen at her high school. But in July 1984—when she was 22, studying sports management at Elon College and thinking about marriage—a strange man broke into her apartment. She kept her head, searching the man's face for identifying marks and persuading him not to use his knife. She managed to save her life. But when her boyfriend downplayed the violence of the attack, Thompson told him, "I never want to see you again."

She went to the hospital, where doctors took samples using a rape kit. Then she went to the police station, where she pored over pictures of noses and eyes to create a composite sketch. In their files police found a photograph of a man who resembled the sketch. As a youth, Cotton had been jailed on a breaking-and-entering charge for several months. His father was a hog farmer, his mother a mill-worker who raised eight children on her own. "I had it rough, coming up," says Cotton. "I took the wrong route sometimes." When he heard the police were looking for him in connection with the Thompson case, he went to the station voluntarily. The next thing he knew, he was locked up—Thompson had picked out his photo. "It was his nose, his hair," says Thompson. "I've learned since that those are the biggest things white people confuse about African-Americans." He was 22, the same age as Thompson.

"I hated him," Thompson says. "His face was everywhere in my head." The day Cotton was convicted, largely based on her testimony, was, she says, "the happiest day of my life." Not long afterward, while she was trying to get her life back on track, a friend persuaded her to spend spring break in Fort Lauderdale. There Vincent Cannino, a New York man about to enter the police academy, asked her out. "You can buy me dinner, but you better not touch me," she said. It was an unlikely start to romance, but Cannino told her, "I'm going to prove to you that not all men are going to victimize you." The two wed in 1988 but still her past intruded. "My poor husband, he had all these skeletons to deal with," she says. "He's really hung in there, teaching me that you don't have to be perfect."

Meanwhile, Cotton was defending himself from rapists in prison. To bolster his confidence, he told himself, "The Lord don't put nothing on you you can't bear." Sometimes he would sing to cheer up other prisoners. Then he heard that an inmate named Bobby Poole was boasting that Cotton was serving time for a crime Poole had committed, and in 1987 the courts were persuaded to reexamine the Cotton case. On the witness stand he was too shaken to speak cogently in his own defense, so he sang a song about his faith. Thompson thought he was mocking her. When Poole was called, he denied having raped Thompson, and she told the judge, "I've never seen this man before." Memory is odd, she says now. "The last image we've seen becomes a permanent fixture. Ronald's face had been in my mind for three years." At his first trial he got life; prosecuted for a second rape this time, he was given two life sentences.

Then Poole was put in the same cell block. "I would lie in my bed, looking over at him and thinking," says Cotton. In despair he made a weapon out of the metal edge of a desk and waited. But Cotton's father convinced him that revenge would only harm him further. Cotton took to working out his frustration in the gym and searching for a lawyer to take on his case. Finally a professor at the University of North Carolina law school suggested he try the recently developed DNA tests. "It was my last shot," says Cotton. Fortunately Mike Gauldin, the detective who had worked on the case and now the chief of police in Burlington, N.C., had saved the original evidence.

Thompson, sure that a DNA test would just offer further proof of Cotton's guilt, was in her Winston-Salem kitchen when Gauldin dropped by afterward. "Ronald Cotton didn't do it, Jennifer," he said. "It was Poole." Cotton, a quarter Cherokee with a rare O blood type, was not the rapist. But Poole's DNA matched and he finally confessed. "It was like someone smacked me upside the head with a two-by-four," Thompson recalls. "It took days to sink in."

On June 30, 1995, Cotton was taken to the county courthouse, where the judge pronounced, "All the charges against Mr. Cotton are dismissed. You are a free man." Cotton's family, gathered in the courtroom, cheered. "Everybody was pulling for him at the end," says Gauldin. "We worked just as hard to exonerate him as we did initially to send him to prison."

Though free, Cotton had to begin life anew. "I was stepping out into that big world," he recalls. He was 33. He had no clothes, no driver's license. A sister offered him a bed, and he got a job driving a forklift at LabCorp in Burlington—ironically the very facility that had done the DNA testing. On the job he grew friendly with lab technician Robbin Wilson, a nodding acquaintance who never believed the kid she had known was guilty. She helped him study for his driver's exam. And one night he cooked her a steak dinner, lit some candles and said, "Let's get married." He told her he wanted a family, a job, a car and his own home: "Nothing fancy, I just want to be able to do the things I haven't done." They wed on his birthday, Dec. 21, 1996, more than a year after his release. He had heard nothing from Thompson. "Things build up that you want to say to each other," he says. "I wanted to ask her, 'Why? Why is it my face you see in your nightmares?' "

As for Thompson, she was afraid Cotton would sue her, afraid of his anger. Plus she had a family to protect: She and Vincent, now a children's book illustrator, had triplets. "I made a pact with the big guy upstairs that if they made it, I'd be the best darn mother I could be." Her life became caring for the kids—Brittany, Morgan and Blake, now 10—cleaning, cooking, choir and ball games. But she knew she had left something undone: She needed to apologize to Ronald Cotton. "I felt guilt and shame," she says. "I realized I needed to see him." Three years ago she set up a meeting, worrying, "Is he gonna punch me in the mouth, spit on me, tell me to go straight to hell?" Cotton's wife, knowing he sometimes dreamed he was back in prison, was afraid a meeting would reopen old wounds. "But I went back to my wedding vows—'for better and for worse,' " says Robbin, 38, now a convenience-store manager. "I had to realize that this may be closure for him."

Three years ago Thompson and Cotton, with their spouses, met at the First Baptist Church in Elon College, N.C., a town that Thompson had never wanted to see again. "I fell apart," she says. "I was finally able to get the words out that I was so incredibly sorry, that I didn't know if he would hate me." With tears in his eyes, Cotton told her that he had long since forgiven her. "He was so easy, his manner of speaking so soft," says Thompson. "I said, 'If I spent every moment for the rest of my life telling you I'm sorry, it wouldn't be enough.' " Says Cotton: "I just wanted her to know that she could go through life without having to look over her shoulder." Thompson is still awed that the man she twice convicted was so magnanimous. "I don't think I could have done it," she says.

But she has forgiven the man who did rape her. She tried to visit Poole in prison, but he refused to see her and died of cancer several months ago. She wanted to ask, "What is it that made you hate so much?" Recently Thompson's son Blake, prompted by a Boy Scout assignment, asked what rape was. First she had to explain sex, then forcible sex. "What makes a man do that?" Blake wanted to know. She told him that many abusers were themselves hurt as children, something she has learned over the past four years while volunteering to mentor abusive mothers for a state agency. Blake asked if she had ever known someone who was raped or a rapist. "Yes," was all she said.

Last month Thompson, with Blake, drove her lime-green VW bug past her old college and the apartment where she was raped; Cotton drove his brown Ford pickup past the courtroom where he was twice found guilty. At the church where, Thompson says, "we first became friends," they talked about a movie offer, and Thompson suggested that they write a book. Blake, listening raptly, heard prison stories of reading by the light of a burning aspirin and making hot cocoa with M & Ms in milk, heated over a toilet-paper fire.

Cotton and Thompson are 38 now. They have spouses and children and picnic tables. Each sleeps in a four-poster bed. People often take Cotton for a cop. Maybe it's the way he cases a room when he walks in, alert for danger, or maybe it's his essential solitude. He is still afraid of falling afoul of the law and doesn't go out much, preferring to invite friends to the house in the countryside that he and Robbin built with the $105,000 compensation he received from the state for wrongful incarceration after Thompson wrote a letter to the legislature on his behalf. He now works on a factory line making insulation—a tough, physical job but one that pays well. "Whether you're in there or out here, everybody's doing time, just in a different way," he says.

Thompson is letting go of her need to control her environment. She has panic attacks in the darkness sometimes, sensing a presence. But the face now is a blank, not that of Ronald Cotton, whom she knows for a warm, funny, gentle man. "Do you still have nightmares?" Thompson asks him as they sit together at the First Baptist Church. "I remember when we came together here before, you told me you used to dream about being behind bars." "Not now," says Cotton.

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