BY DAVID GRAVES
This story is about two people, two victims of crime. Two people that suffered from circumstance and circumstantial evidence. Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson are these two people. This story is about the way circumstantial evidence convicts and the way DNA exonerates.
Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson are living the ultimate human story. It is one of error, recognizing it and being redeemed. Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were living in Piedmont North Carolina during the crime. Anyone who has lived there in the past twenty years knows their names, but probably not their entire story. In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was 22 when a man broke into her house and raped her. As the man assaulted her, she studied and memorized his face, as well as his voice, and everything she could about him. Jennifer’s intention was to survive, and when the assault was over, she wanted to put him in prison for the rest of his life for what he did to her. After Jennifer was treated for her injuries she helped the police draw a composite sketch of the man who raped her. The Police Department of Alamance County had never seen a victim so composed, so determined and so sure. Just a few hours after her horrifying ordeal, after the emotionless doctor swabbed her vagina for semen samples at the hospital, Jennifer sat down at the police station with Detective Mike Gauldin. "The first comment I remember her making was that, “I'm going to get this guy that did this to me.” She said, “I took the time to look at him. I will be able to identify him if I'm given an opportunity," Gauldin remembered her saying (Hansen, 2001). She began combing through photos, trying to help come up with a composite of her rapist. The sketch went out, and tips started pouring in. One of those tips was about Ronald Cotton. Three days after the rape, Detective Gauldin called Jennifer in to the police station to do a photo lineup. Detective Gauldin lay six photos down on the table. The Detective said that Jennifer did not immediately identify a photo from the photo lineup. She took her time and studied each picture carefully. "I can remember almost feeling like I was at an SAT test. You know, where you start narrowing down your choices. You can discount A and B," Jennifer said. She picked out Ronald Cotton’s photo. Cotton heard the news from his mother's boyfriend. He told me, “Ron, the police are looking for you.” And I said, “For what?” And he told me, “For rape.” And I said, “I haven't committed such a crime like that,” Cotton said (Finkelstein, 2009). Ronald Cotton gave Detective Gauldin a very detailed account of where he was, and who he was with that night. As it turned out the statement that Ronald Cotton had given to the Detective was false. He later realized that he had gotten his weekends mixed up. By this point it was too late. His honest mistake gave them more reason to think that he was lying, and if he was lying about his whereabouts on the night of the rape, what else was he lying about? The day he went back to the police station to clear his name, was August 1, 1984. He did not get the chance. He was arrested. Ronald Cotton was not going to get to leave. He was getting locked up, and days later he was put in a physical lineup. "I'm number five," Cotton remembered. "I was very scared, nervous. I was so nervous, I was trembling. I felt my body just shaking" (Finkelstein, 2009). A week later, Jennifer sat across a table from six men that were holding numbered cards. She picked No. 5. And with the words, “That’s my rapist, Detective Gauldin," she changed another’s existence as well as her own forever. On August 1, 1984, Ronald Cotton was arrested for the rape that had been committed against Jennifer Thompson. In a week-long trial, the jury heard about Cotton's faulty alibi, his clothing that matched Thompson description, and a piece of foam found on her floor that...