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N.C. Man Wrongfully Convicted of Crime Speaks with Students Reading about Ordeal

Ronald Cotton discusses his book, "Picking Cotton," with students assembled in PCC's Craig F. Goess Student Center Friday afternoon. A Burlington native, Cotton spent nearly 11 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

• VIDEO: "Picking Cotton" Book Discussion with Ronald Cotton

WINTERVILLE—For nearly 11 years, Ronald Cotton spent his life behind bars, all the while knowing full well that he had been locked up for a crime he didn’t commit.

During a presentation at Pitt Community College on Friday, Cotton spoke with students about the book he wrote detailing his wrongful conviction, his days in prison and a pardon that came more than a decade later. It is a story he co-wrote with author Erin Torneo and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino—the woman who wrongly accused him of raping her at knifepoint in 1984.

“Picking Cotton,” which was released in 2010, tells the tale of Cotton’s ordeal, including his dogged pursuit of justice and his eventual release from prison in 1995, after a DNA test confirmed what he had been telling everyone for more than a decade—that he was not responsible for Thompson-Cannino’s rape. In addition to being a real-life story of survival, faith and persistence, the book serves as a powerful testament to the healing power of forgiveness.

Students in a Foundational Studies English course at Pitt have been reading “Picking Cotton” this semester as part of a class assignment.

PCC Foundational Studies Dean Hilda Barrow says she chose the book for the students after she discovered it at a Raleigh bookstore and couldn’t stop reading it.

“It’s something everyone needs to read,” Barrow said.

Now 51 years old (he’ll turn 52 later this month), Cotton is recovering from a stroke he suffered two years ago. Nevertheless, the Burlington native still travels from his home in Mebane to places across the nation to speak with groups about his life’s experiences.

At PCC last week, Cotton gave students a firsthand account of how he managed to get through his ordeal, the unlikely friendship he forged with his one-time accuser, and how he has spent his time as a free man since 1995.

It was the summer of 1984 when Cotton’s life changed dramatically for the worse, after a pair of young women were raped at knifepoint in July. When he learned that he was similar in appearance to a police sketch of the rapist and that authorities wanted to speak with him about the incident, Cotton made his way to the police department voluntarily to demonstrate his innocence.

He was arrested on Aug. 1, however, and charged with the crimes after Thompson-Cannino picked him out of a police lineup. Police also discovered a flashlight in his home that was similar to the one used by the rapist and said rubber from his tennis shoes was similar to rubber left behind by the perpetrator’s shoes at the crime scene.

Though authorities gave him an opportunity to plea bargain, Cotton said he refused because he was innocent. He ended up being convicted in Alamance County Superior Court in January 1985 and sentenced to life plus 54 years.

Though nearly 29 years have passed since he was led to a prison cell following his conviction, Cotton still vividly recalls telling his girlfriend at the time to move on without him and he remembers the shouts of “fresh meat” from inmates as he was being led to his cell.

Cotton made the most of his predicament. He enrolled in GED courses, got a job in the prison kitchen and began researching case law in an effort to win his freedom.

Though he actually met the man responsible for committing the crimes of which he had been wrongfully convicted while serving time at Central Prison in Raleigh, Cotton was convicted at a second trial in 1987 after the second rape victim decided that he had been her assailant.

Eight years later, as he was watching the O.J. Simpson trial while incarcerated in Mason, Tenn., he first learned of a new scientific method of testing evidence collected at crime scenes.

When a DNA test later proved that Cotton was not the rapist, he was released from prison in June of 1995 and pardoned by the governor a month later.

Two years after his release, Cotton finally met with his accuser, who asked for his forgiveness. Cotton told Thompson-Cannino that he had already forgiven her while he was in prison and that she had nothing to fear from him, that he had moved forward with his life. The two have been friends ever since.

A father of a 15-year-old daughter, Raven, Cotton is now married to a woman he met while working at LabCorp, which coincidentally had conducted the DNA test that freed him from prison.

Cotton says he is currently negotiating a deal for a movie adaptation of “Picking Cotton.” For more information on his book, visit www.pickingcottonbook.com.