Monday, November 2, 2009

And Then They Hugged

You can't do capital defense work for any length of time without becoming (if you weren't that way already) jaded and cynical. You learn quickly, if you didn't know, that the real world of capital law is driven by politics and by money and by race.

If you didn't know before, you come to see that innocent people really do get convicted and sentenced to die, and even executed. You certainly come to see that despite decades of pronouncements from the courts, there's no rational way to determine who will live and who will die. And you learn that almost nobody else in the system - not the cops, not the prosecutors, not the judges spends much time trying to understand how these things can be so - and how to change them..

But if we're a cynical bunch, we're also romantics. The cynicism may be learned. The romaniticism is inbred. The combination gets us up in the morning.

And so it came to pass that I was sitting in a conference room with a couple of hundred of the very best, most committed capital litigators in the country, and when Jennifer Thompson-Cannino (I think she just went by Jennifer Thompson at that time) finished telling her story we leaped to our feet, applauding her courage and her actions, tears flooding many an eye.

I don't have my records handy, so as I write this I believe that was before Texas killed Gary Graham, though it might have been after. But she told the story, also, in a Times op-ed just before that killing. It's an extraordinary tale, not because it's so unusual (alas, it isn't) but because she tells it at all. And because of where it ended.

The short version:

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson, a 22-year-old, blonde college student in North Carolina was brutally raped at knife point by a black man. She studied the rapist because she wanted to be sure. If she wasn't killed, she was going to be able to identify him and make him pay.

She wasn't killed. She helped police make a sketch of the rapist. Then she picked him out of a photo array. Then she picked him out of a line-up. Then she identified him in court. On her testimony Ronald Cotton was convicted and sentenced to prison for life. He got a second trial. She identified him again. Cotton said that another man, one Bobby Poole, had confessed. She looked at that man in court and said, absolutely, in certainty and in all honesty, that she'd never seen him before. Cotton was convicted again. This time he ended up with two life sentences.

Eventually they did DNA testing. Cotton was innocent. Poole was the rapist. After 11 years in prison, Cotton was freed and received a full pardon from the governor.

That's an amazing story. I can't imagine the courage it takes for Thompson to tell it to open up about what she did, about how she was wrong, about the dangers of eyewitness identification how easily and with what certainty it can be mistaken.

But see, that's only the beginning. For something else extraordinary happened.

Jennifer Thompson decided she had to meet Ronald Cotton. He described what happened.
"Mr. Cotton. I don't even know what to call you. Ron? Ronald? Mr. Cotton? If I spent the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn't come close to how I feel," Jennifer said. "Can you ever forgive me?"
Raymond Chandler, writing about detective fiction, said
in everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.
Life, of course, is often less credible, less realistic than art. Ron Cotton's answer was as simple and honest as Jennifer Thompson-Cannino's question:
I forgive you.
And then . . . . They hugged. They became friends. As did their families. And they spoke out together.

And now they've written a book, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption.

I know the story. I've known it for years. I cried when I first heard her tell it in that room with a couple of hundred capital lawyers. I cried when I read it in the Times. I cried when I read the book. I even cried as I typed out her words and his response just now.

The book's not a literary classic, but it's an incredibly moving and powerful story. And a seriously cautionary tale. I wish prosecutors would read it and learn. I wish judges would. Frankly, I wish defense counsel would. You should.


  1. Thank you Mr. Gamso. Thank you, thank you.

  2. I'm not sure who you are (and if you'd like to identify yourself personally, please write to me directly, I'd be happy to hear from you). In any event you're welcome.