Wheelock formally opened the 2012-2013 academic year on September 11 with a Convocation Ceremony featuring an address by Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, authors of the best-selling book-and Wheelock summer reading assignment-Picking Cotton. The book centers on Cotton's wrongful conviction for Thompson's rape 28 years ago.
Pictured at left: (l to r) Picking Cotton co-author Jennifer Thompson, panel moderator Kim McLaurin, co-author Ronald Cotton, and Jackie Jenkins-Scott
In her remarks at the College, Thompson noted that 75 percent of false convictions include faulty witness identifications. "It's very easy to change a person's memory; it's malleable," she said. She said their story illustrates the importance of proper evidence-collecting procedures. "I realize there are thousands of Ronald Cottons in the U.S. prison system and most of them will just die there," she said. "Race is a huge factor in who gets convicted, what kind of sentence they receive, and what kind of representation they get."
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a 4.0 GPA and lofty goals for her future. Her path was dramatically altered however, when a man broke into her apartment, put a knife to her throat, and raped her.
In that moment, her determination took an entirely different direction, as she focused all attention on memorizing the man's features. Searching for scars, tattoos, and any unique features that could help her identify him, she was certain that she could put him in prison for life. After a composite sketch, line-up identification, and trial, Jennifer Thompson's testimony and memory led to a life sentence for Ronald Cotton.
Years later, Thompson was asked to provide a DNA sample for further analysis of the case. She agreed to the request, positive that her identification of Cotton would be held up by science. In an instant, both lives changed, when it was revealed that Ronald Cotton was not her rapist, and after spending 11 years in prison as an innocent man, he was released.
Devastated that her actions led to the imprisonment of an innocent man, Thompson reached out to Cotton to apologize, and in an act of true generosity, he forgave her. Their unlikely friendship and bond became the basis for the New York Times best-selling book, Picking Cotton.
Despite spending 11 years in prison, Cotton said he did not hesitate to forgive Thompson for her mistake. "We all make mistakes, we all fall down," he said. "When someone does something wrong, we all need to forgive and to mean it. I know sometimes it's hard."
Today, Thompson and Cotton travel the country, speaking out in favor of DNA testing and working to protect the wrongfully convicted by sharing their personal stories of hope and redemption.
The Convocation Ceremony began at 3 p.m. in the Wheelock Family Theatre and was followed by a reception in the Campus Center. Here is the schedule of events:
Processional: Omega Brass Ensemble
Opening Remarks: Jackie Jenkins-Scott, President
Greetings: Ranch C. Kimball, Chair of the Board of Trustees
Remarks on Behalf of the Student Body: Wayne Peterson, Student Government Association President
Introduction of Keynote Speakers: President Jenkins-Scott
Convocation Speakers: Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton
Distribution of Tassels: President Jenkins-Scott and members of the Wheelock faculty
Closing Remarks: President Jenkins-Scott
Recessional: Omega Brass Ensemble