In 1984, when Jennifer was a 22-year-old college student in Burlington, North Carolina, a man broke into her home, held a knife to her throat, and raped her. During the attack, Jennifer kept her eyes open. She studied her assailant’s face and body, trying to memorize every mark, every scar, his height, his weight, the color of his eyes, anything that would help her identify the man and put him away. When she went down to the police station that same day, she picked Ronald Cotton from a photo. Later, she picked him out of a lineup.
Jennifer took the stand at Cotton’s trial, utterly convinced of his guilt, and very angry. “I hated the public defender, I hated Ronald Cotton, I hated Ronald Cotton’s family, I hated anybody who liked him, I hated anybody who was trying to save him. I hated them all,” she says. Based on Jennifer’s testimony, Ronald Cotton—who was also 22 at the time —was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. After the sentence was handed down, Jennifer says, “It was the first time I could breathe. We toasted the judicial system with champagne that afternoon.”
Cotton appealed and was retried 1987. During the second trial, Bobby Poole, who was incarcerated in same prison as Cotton and had confessed to his cellmate that he was Jennifer’s actual assailant, was brought into the courtroom. When asked to identify him, Jennifer Thompson replied, “I have never seen him in my life. I have no idea who he is.” Cotton was convicted again. This time, he was given two life sentences. Jennifer would have been happier had Cotton been sentenced to the death. “It’s hard for me to describe the hatred, the anger, the rage that I felt towards this person,” Jennifer says. “I would have killed him myself if I could have. It was all-consuming.” She tried to get past the attack. She finished college, got a job, married, and started a family. Still, she was angry. “You don’t move on,” she says. You move around. It’s always part of who you are.”
In 1995, Ronald Cotton still insisted on his innocence. Technology had evolved and evidence from the case was tested for DNA. The results were conclusive. Ronald Cotton had not raped Jennifer Thompson. Bobby Poole had. Jennifer was devastated. For over a decade, she had been a victim, but now she felt like an offender. “I felt paralyzing, debilitating, suffocating guilt and shame,” she says. “I had been the victim for 11 years. Ronald had been the bad person for 11 years. And now all of a sudden, our roles were switched.” Ronald was cleared of all charges and became the first exoneree in the state of North Carolina.
Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton met for the first time at a church not far from where she had been raped. “I physically couldn’t stand up,” she says. “I just started to sob. I looked at him and I said, ‘If I spent every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of my life telling you that I’m sorry, can you ever forgive me?’ He did the one thing that I had never imagined. He started to cry, and he said, ‘Jennifer, I forgave you years ago.’”
Thirteen years after her attack, Jennifer wasn’t angry anymore. “Parts of me that had been broken for so long, I could feel them fusing again,” she says. “It was like I was literally looking at grace and mercy. He was sitting in front of me—grace and mercy. Ronald gave me back my life that day.”
In the years since that first meeting, Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton have become friends. She has asked him how he managed to forgive her for a mistake that stole over a decade of his life, and he says that if he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison—if he was going to die there—he had to find a way to live without anger and bitterness. He learned how to forgive so that he could survive. Despite Ronald’s forgiveness, it would take years before Jennifer was able to forgive herself. Indeed, she forgave her rapist Bobby Poole before she forgave herself. “I forgave Bobby Poole because I watched Ronald forgive me,” she says. “I wanted that same peace. I didn’t want to live in hate and anger anymore.”