For my class entitled “Sexuality and the Law”, I have recently been tasked with reading “Picking Cotton”, a book written by a rape survivor–Jennifer Thompson– and the man she mistakenly accused of raping her–Ronald Cotton– sentencing him to life in prison. Though we are meant to focus on the book through the lens of how the law and society approaches and prosecutes topics of rape and consent, the book is rife with examples of police bias and misconduct in the handling of the case.
Ronald Cotton’s prosecution and conviction hinged on the eyewitness testimony of the woman he allegedly raped. In her sections of the book describing the rape, Jennifer insists on the fact that she made a point to memorize the facial features of the man who abused her for almost an hour, and took note of the clothes and shoes he was wearing. When the police called her down to the station to pick out a photo of a potential suspect, she picked out Cotton’s picture, believing that the police wouldn’t have called her down to the station if they didn’t have a perpetrator in mind. When she asked the lead investigator how she had done (in picking out the photograph), he commended her on a job well done. This implicitly biased her towards picking Cotton out of a lineup again, only this time it was in person. The police’s encouragement to pick out a suspect lead to 11 years lost in Ronald Cotton’s life. If it had not been for DNA evidence exonerating him, Ronald would have been forced to serve 2 life sentences plus fifty-four years in a federal prison.
I believe that race played a central role in Ronald Cotton’s prosecution and eventual wrongful conviction for the rape of Jennifer Thompson. Cotton was already on the police department’s radar after a few transgressions in his youth, and he stood out all the more because of his propensity to date white women. There is a historical precedent in the United States for the lynching of Black men for their involvement with white women–particularly in the South. There were still ripples of this in 1985 Burlington, North Carolina. Ronald Cotton’s race and his transgression across racial boundaries made him a target for the police department, but it also made him a victim of a judicial system that often lacks empathy for minorities, given that the system under which it operates serves to imprison as many poor Black and Latino men and women as possible. He was tried and found guilty by an all-white jury (the prosecution went to great lengths to exclude black jurors from the pool) There is a pervasive notion among many people that even if a prisoner (particularly a Black prisoner) is innocent of the crime they are convicted for, they’re still “guilty of something”, and so judges and juries are less likely to grant appeals. Even after his exoneration, North Carolina was extremely reluctant in giving Ronald the meager compensation to be awarded him under the law. At the time that Ronald was exonerated, he was entitled to $5,000–total. This was later raised to $10,000 for every year he had spent in prison, which would have entitled him to $110,000. However, since he had not technically completed his 11th year, the legislature insisted on only giving him $109,150.69. I believe that even this was still racially motivated, as they viewed him as a character people would be unlikely to sympathize with, and so would be able to “get away” with giving him less than what was due/ what was right.