Woman Who Mistakenly Identified Her Attacker Shares Her Story
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Jennifer Thompson’s nightmarish experience as a crime victim became even more traumatic when she realized that her mistaken identification had convicted the wrong man.
When Jennifer was a 22-year-old college student, an intruder raped her at knife-point in her own apartment. “I was able to escape and he chased me, but a neighbor saved my life.” Jennifer helped police create a composite sketch of her assailant, and a tipster identified it as the likeness of a local man, Ronald Cotton.
Ronald was arrested, and Jennifer was able to pick him out of both photographic and in-person lineups. He was tried and convicted of all charges.
Eleven years later, the original investigator visited Jennifer and told her that there was a new procedure known as post-conviction testing. Jennifer willingly gave a blood sample “Because I wanted to know the truth. And I thought the truth was that Ronald Cotton had indeed raped me.”
But three months afterward, the investigator told Jennifer that Ronald had not raped her – the DNA in her rape kit matched that of another man, Bobby Poole, who was currently in the same prison as Ronald Cotton. “While Ronald Cotton was in prison, Bobby Poole raped six more women,” says Jennifer.
She adds, "I realized that you can compensate people all day long, but you can’t heal the harm. You can’t unbreak a broken heart.”
Jennifer explains that we’ve learned a great deal about how human memory can fail, especially in traumatic situations. “I got a good look at the perpetrator, but then when questions get asked of the witness or the victim, things can get planted into your mind that change your original memory," she says. “It’s not intentional. It’s not malicious. But it happens all the time.”
Now Jennifer and Ronald are best friends. Two years after he was exonerated, Jennifer asked for a meeting with him and told him how sorry she was. “He immediately started to cry with me and told me that he wasn’t angry. He had forgiven me years ago. It was from that mutual place of harm that we could begin to heal. I love him!”
Jennifer has found an organization, Healing Justice, which brings harmed parties together to share their stories. Ronald regularly comes to Healing Justice retreats.