She Sent the Wrong Man to Prison

updated 03/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The first time Ronald Cotton ever saw Jennifer Thompson was when she picked him out of a police lineup as the man who raped her. "I watched her looking at me," Cotton says of that day in 1984, "and I got the feeling she was writing down my number." Their next meeting was in a North Carolina courtroom, where Thompson, then a 22-year-old college student, pointed at him and again declared that he was her rapist. "I remember wondering, 'What is happening?'" he says. "'Why is she doing this to me?'"

Cotton would spend 11 years in custody before getting the chance to ask her that question. Wrongly sentenced to two life terms, he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1995 and released; in 1997 he agreed to meet with his guilt-ridden accuser. What happened that day led to a remarkable friendship—and is at the heart of Picking Cotton, a new memoir cowritten by Jennifer (now Thompson-Cannino), 46, and Ronald, 47. "I've seen a lot of things in my career but never anything like this," says Mike Gauldin, a now retired detective who worked the case. "That they could not only move forward but develop this friendship—it just defies logic."

Theirs is a story of hope and faith, of the power of forgiveness—but also of the tricks that memory can play. Jennifer was a bright, driven senior at North Carolina's Elon College when someone broke into her off-campus apartment at around 3 a.m. on July 29, 1984. The attacker held a knife to her throat and raped her. "I thought I was going to die," she says. "But I also thought, 'I have to focus because if I survive, I'm going to make sure this person goes away forever.'" Trying to distract him, she asked for a glass of water; once alone in the kitchen, she escaped out a back door. Later that day, she helped Det. Gauldin create a composite sketch. "She was traumatized," he says, "but she gave a very specific description."

The published sketch led to a tip about Ronald, then 22, who had already served time for breaking and entering (he says he was innocent but plea-bargained to avoid a longer sentence). After seeing him in the lineup, "I was positive it was him," Jennifer says. "I told police I could never forget that face." Ronald, who had confused two nights and given police an alibi that didn't pan out, was found guilty at his trial in 1985 and again on appeal in 1987—both times largely because of Jennifer's testimony. Still, he says, "I knew I hadn't done it, so I never gave up hope."

Years passed before he got his big break: the O.J. Simpson trial. Ronald had learned that another inmate was bragging about having raped Jennifer; when the Simpson case popularized nascent DNA technology, he wrote his lawyers asking that his own DNA, and that of the other inmate, be tested. "I said, 'If your DNA matches the rape kit, you'll never get out of jail,'" says Rich Rosen, a North Carolina law professor who helped Cotton pro-bono. "He said, 'I am innocent. Do it.'"

In 1995 the results came back: Cotton was not a match. What's more, the other inmate, Bobby Poole, was. Poole confessed to raping Jennifer and another woman that night, providing details only the attacker would know. Jennifer, who by then had married Vincent Cannino and was the mother of young triplets, stood trembling in her kitchen as Gauldin told her Cotton wasn't the rapist. "It rocked my world," she says. "I went numb."

Shortly after the tests, Cotton was summoned to court. A judge told him, "You are free to go." Says Ronald: "I'm not a crybaby, but I cried that day. I hugged my mother and I said, 'Lord, what happens to me now?'" For her part, Jennifer agonized over her mistake, which she believes was born of fear. "I felt enormous pressure to convict the man who raped me, or else he would find and kill me," she says. "It contaminated my memory." In 1997 she called Mike Gauldin. "I told her, 'I know what you're going to ask,'" he says. "'You want to meet Ronald.'"

The two came together in the pastor's office at the First Baptist Church in Elon, N.C. "Ronald walked in with his wife, Robbin," says Jennifer. "I was weeping, shaking. I looked up at him, and I said I was sorry. I had come up with every possible scenario in the world for what he was going to say to me, except for what he said." What Ronald said was, "I forgive you. I am not angry with you. I want you to be happy." How could he have been so charitable? "I don't see the need to hang on to anger," he says simply. "If you do, you'd be living miserable."

Afterwards, in the parking lot, they hugged for a long while. In the weeks that followed, their improbable friendship blossomed. They gave speeches to civic groups about the case, called each other often and met each other's families. "I cried the first time I held his tiny daughter Raven," says Jennifer. "Before, every nightmare I had, every fear, I would see Ronald's face. And now, we're just so comfortable."

Yet both still carry scars. Ronald, who received $105,000 from the state for his wrongful incarceration and now works at an insulation plant, is forever building an alibi: He makes sure he's captured by every surveillance camera and keeps receipts from every store. "I got a pocketful of 'em now. Wanna see?" he says. Jennifer struggled for years to stop blaming herself. "Only after she met with Ronald could you see her start to let go of this weight," says her sister-in-law Tami Thompson. "Now, they really lean on each other."

And, like any good friends, they enjoy a little needling. "Ronald never empties his voicemail, and that's annoying," says Jennifer, over sweet iced tea in an Elon coffee shop. "I know, I know," he says, laughing. "She's a bit of a nag." What would strangers make of their affectionate friendship, if they knew how it came to be? Sometimes they can hardly believe it themselves. "I hated this man. I thought he was a monster, and then came this moment of such grace, such mercy," says Jennifer. "Ronald taught me the power of forgiveness. He taught me how to live my life."

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