July 8th, 2011

planet

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

My sister & I were talking about reason to be against the death penalty and she recommended the book "Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption". It's a true story, about and written by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. In 1984, Jennifer picks Ron Cotton out of a lineup and says she's certain he raped her. But he wasn't the guy. The book is a story about how the truth was discovered and how both these people repair their lives, but also it's about the awful flaws in the justice system that allowed this to happen.

After reading the book I'm more shocked that things worked out for this poor guy than I am that he was wrongfully convicted. At every step along the conviction process, I just thought "this is not good." I could see it logically all playing out the wrong way. And the worst thing is, the monster who attacked Jennifer was left free and hurt other women, while everyone was distracted by the tempting prospect of swift justice.

Lineups, as it turns out, are notoriously unreliable. Jennifer's actual rapist, a guy who she'd seen one time 11 days prior, was not in the lineup. She'd also seen Ron in photos she was asked to look through, and he'd been turned in based on his similarity to a composite sketch she'd helped police with. The photos and sketch were the recent images in her head as she looked at the men, soaking in the fear that if she let the guy go he'd come back for her. The police told her that the prime suspect was in the lineup, that he was a real scumbag, she just had to pick him to be safe. As it turns out, we all have a strong tendency to pick the "second best match" without even realizing it, and our mind makes our pick match our memories. That's the problem with lineups. Jennifer is racked by guilt until she learns this, at which point she turns her experience into a voice for justice.

Ron Cotton was poor, black, and didn't work a M-F office job so when he was asked where he was last weekend he got his dates confused and said he was at a club. He was actually at his mom's house. So when the club didn't check out, and only his mother and family could back up his real alibi, it wasn't enough. At 24 years old he was found guilty by the all-white jury, and sentenced to life plus 50 years.

Turns out this happens a LOT. There are guys like Troy Davis, on death row based on cases where there's very little or no physical evidence linking them to the crime. Just human memory, swimming in fear and reeling after an event that you'd like so much to forget. In fact The Innocence Project has exonerated 266 people by asking courts to review cases using new DNA testing... but they don't automatically agree to look at evidence again. It takes serious work and arguments.

I really think Ron in this book was set free by the grace of God. A law professor started looking into Ron's case when DNA evidence gained popularity, and sure enough the crime scene evidence that hadn't been destroyed matched the real bad guy, who Ron had happened to run into himself in prison so they knew where to look for the match. But he's served 11 years in prisons, missed out on a huge chunk of the life he deserved when he's finally set free.

I read this book in two days and my mind was just spinning, it gave me so much to think about. And it has definitely made my anti-death penalty stance even stronger. Do some people deserve to die? Maybe. Do I trust this system to decide who those people are? NO. It's the same reason I'm against all forms of torture or cruel & unusual punishment... it's not worth it. Prison is an awful place, spending your life in prison is punishment enough. And if we make a mistake, we can let someone out of prison. That's important.