CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Book Review: 'Picking Cotton' by By Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

PICKING COTTON

Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

By Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo

St. Martin's Press. 298 pp. $25.95

Nearly everyone in prison protests innocence, but Ronald Cotton was telling the truth. Cotton was just 22 when he walked into a Burlington, N.C., police station to answer rape allegations; he spent the next 11 years seeking freedom. "Put a man in a cage with beasts and throw away the key, and it's usually not long before the man is a beast himself," he writes in this unusual joint memoir, written with his accuser, now friend, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino.

Considering the odds stacked against him -- a bum alibi, a victim focused on being the strongest possible witness, a justice system all too willing to send another young black man to jail -- it's extraordinary that Cotton emerged from prison at all. More stunning still was his willingness, upon exoneration by DNA evidence, to forgive the people who put him there, including rape victim Thompson-Cannino, whose erroneous identification of Cotton in a police line-up had begun his horrible odyssey.

Their story, told here in alternating sections, emphasizes that both were victims. Still, as both acknowledge, Thompson-Cannino, traumatized as she was, spent the next decade in freedom, marrying and having kids, while Cotton endured prison. Left mostly unexamined is the role race played in his incarceration, but even the most cynical reader will be impressed with Cotton's resilience and grace.

-- Kate Tuttle


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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