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In July 1984, Thompson-Cannino, a white college student in Burlington, N.C., was raped by a black intruder. She identified her assailant in a lineup as Cotton; he was sentenced to life plus 50 years. When he secured a new trial in 1987, he found himself charged with a second attack and sentenced to two life sentences plus 54 years. DNA evidence at a new trial, eight years later, exonerated him of both charges. Authors Thompson-Cannino and Cotton offer this riveting account of their separate, yet connected, lives through those years. The first two parts describe their dreadful experiences: for her, in the “[s]aliva swabs, vaginal swabs, pubic hair combings” of the rape kit; for him, being “sprayed like a dog getting defleaed” at the prison. Thompson-Cannino describes the invasive procedures following a rape, unsettling police procedures (the lineup), unfamiliar legal stages (such as a probable cause hearing) and the disturbing trial. Cotton leads readers through the events following a conviction (the several prisons, adjustments to the prison norm, the alternating hope and despair of the judicial stages). Redemption is the subject of the third part, where Thompson-Cannino and Cotton forge a path to genuine friendship in advocating for the wrongfully convicted. Together they have produced a well-modulated and generously balanced memoir—at once a devastating and uplifting crash course in the criminal justice system.

Publisher’s Weekly

A rape victim and the man she falsely accused—in good faith—collaborate to share an important, affecting story of fatally mistaken identity. Thompson-Cannino was a college student at Elon College in1984, when a knife-wielding man broke into her Burlington, N.C., apartment and raped her. She saw him clearly and escaped the apartment before he could harm her further. After working with a police sketch artist and examining mug shots gathered by police, she identified 22-year-old Cotton, who was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. He maintained his innocence from the time police approached him, but nobody except his family believed him. Sophisticated DNA testing did not exist in the mid-'80s, and few people inside or outside the criminal-justice system understood the unreliability of eyewitness identification, especially across racial lines. (Thompson-Cannino is Caucasian, Cotton African-American.) Convicted prisoners rarely receive attention when claiming innocence from their cells, and they usually lack the money, the legal assistance and the support network to make their assertions heard. Cotton didn't have much money, but he drew strength from his family and found unusually receptive lawyers willing to represent him pro bono in time-consuming, seemingly hopeless post-conviction proceedings. Journalist Torneo alternates between the first-person narratives of Thompson-Cannino and Cotton. When Cannino heard that a DNA test had set Cotton free after 11 years in prison, she was stunned and guilt-ridden. After seeing a TV documentary about how eyewitnesses make mistakes, in which Cotton said he wondered why he'd never heard from the woman responsible for his wrongful incarceration, she arranged to meet him. Despite the nervousness of her relatives and the anger of his wife, they built up mutual trust, became friends and eventually began traveling together to educate audiences about flaws in the criminal-justice system. Injustice and redemption are overused words, but this heartfelt joint memoir justifies its subtitle.

Kirkus Reviews

In 1984 Thompson-Cannino was raped at knifepoint by a man who broke into her apartment. In a lineup, she "picked" Ronald Cotton as the person responsible, but the real rapist, Bobby Poole, who resembled Cotton, was not in that line. Eleven years later Cotton was cleared by DNA evidence and Poole was convicted. Thompson-Cannino, who had been sure of her original identification, was overcome with grief, and this book is her mea culpa for her mistake. Divided into three parts—Cannino’s story, Cotton's story, and the story of the meeting and eventual friendship between the two—this easy-to-read book is often touching as Thompson-Cannino challenges our ideas of memory and judgment, and as Cotton talks about his faith and forgiveness…An asset to any crime collection.

Library Journal

Picking Cotton is a rare, pure story about power and powerlessness, and the fallibility of the human mind. Most of all, it’s a story of the transcendent possibilities of the human spirit.


This book will break your heart and lift it up again...a touching and beautiful example of the power of faith and forgiveness. Its message of hope should reverberate far beyond the halls of justice.

Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, Author of Dead Man Walking

What happened in this book will change what you think of the criminal justice system in this country, and challenge you to help fix it. Each of them tells an extraordinary story about crime, punishment and exoneration, but it’s their shared spiritual journey toward reconciliation and forgiveness that is even more compelling and profound.

Barry C. Scheck, Co-Founder and Co-Director of The Innocence Project®

[A] remarkable testament...powerful...A MUST read.

Studs Terkel, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Few people have done more to put a human face on issues involving wrongful convictions than Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. Yet through their shared pain, they have been able to forge a friendship that most of us search our lives for.

Janet Reno, Former U.S. Attorney General