Friday, December 08, 2017

Nonfiction Review: Picking Cotton

Last night, my neighborhood book group discussed a unique joint memoir, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo. This powerful and moving true story just blew me away.

In July 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year old college student living in Burlington, NC, in a small apartment near campus. She was awakened in the middle of the night by a black man next to her bed. He held a knife to her throat and raped her. During the rape, Jennifer played close attention to the man's face and tried to remember every detail, determined to help the police put him away if she survived this ordeal. After she got away from the rapist, he went to another woman's home and raped her, too. Days later, with the help of Jennifer's detailed composite sketch plus her identification through both photos and a line-up, the police arrested a man named Ronald Cotton. Ron insisted he was innocent, but both Jennifer and the police were certain they had the right man, and he was sentenced to life in prison, plus 50 years.

Ron ended up being in prison for eleven long years. Finally, a kind lawyer from a local college and the advent of DNA testing proved what Ron had been saying all along: he did not commit the crimes he was being punished for. The DNA testing also proved that Ron's identification of the real culprit - another man in prison for rape - was correct. After 11 years of being incarcerated, Ron finally walked out a free man, now 33 years old and starting over. Amazingly, he forgave Jennifer for her incorrect identification, and the two became not only partners in trying to change the laws and procedures that helped him to be wrongly imprisoned...but they also became friends.

The memoir alternates between Jennifer's point of view and Ron's, giving readers a unique peek into their very different perspectives of the same events. My book group all agreed that this was a very powerful book and a compelling read. There are so many fascinating aspects to the story, making it an excellent choice for discussion - the court trials that convicted Ron, the identification process, his exoneration with DNA evidence (and others), and most of all, the guilt that Jennifer felt, and Ron's forgiveness of her. We had a wide-ranging discussion on all of these topics and more. This story really gave us some insights into today's justice system and its many problems. I think this is a book that everyone should read.

287 pages, St. Martin's Press

For an introduction to Jennifer and Ron's remarkable story, watch this 60 Minutes segment about the case - even though I knew all the details after reading the book, hearing it from them still brought tears to my eyes:

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the library. My review is my own opinion.

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I read this book on paper, but here is a sample of the audio book.


  1. Wow this sounds really good! It is going on my Christmas wish list. Thank you!

    1. It was just so powerful, Helen - hope you enjoy it!