A Review: Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

By Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton , and Erin Torneo.

Thompson-Cannino, Jennifer, Ronald Cotton , and Erin Torneo. Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. 282 Pages.

About the Authors:

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino lives in North Carolina with her family.  She is an advocate for judicial reform, and is a member of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission, the advisory committee for Active Voices, and the Constitution Project.  Her op-eds have appeared in The New York Times, the Durham Herald-Sun, and the Tallahassee Democrat.

Ronald Cotton lives in North Carolina with his family.  He has spoken at various schools and conferences, including Washington and Lee University, the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Georgetown Law School, and the Community March for Justice for Troy Anthony Davis in Savannah, Georgia.

Erin Torneo lives in Los Angeles and Brooklyn.  She was a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts Nonfiction Fellow.”[1]

Disclaimer:  This book contains depictions of rape (in almost no detail), and prison life (which includes swearing).

Summary:

The story line of this book came from the events of the case against Ronald Cotton.  He was accused with eye witness testimony of the rape of Jennifer Thompson.  Although he was in fact innocent he spent 11 years in jail.  The only evidence that was brought against him was from the testimony of Jennifer Thompson.  While he was in Jail he found the man that did commit the rape of Jennifer and another woman.  Eventually he gets convicted of both of their rapes.  This book is the story of his reconciliation with Jennifer.  He finds redemption through his release and reconciliation with his accusers.  Justice is served as he is acquitted of all crimes.

Review:

Major Themes: Redemption, Reconciliation, Justice, and Forgiveness.

I read this book as I was traveling to visit a friend.  It has a flowing story with starting part of the book written from Jennifer’s perspective with the next section written by Ronald Cotton.  After that they flow back and forth chapter by chapter.  Upon receiving the book I was skeptical of the theological or redemptive quality of the book.  But upon reading it is one of the most fluid true stories that I have read on redemption.

WARNING SPOILER:

When Ronald is getting tried for another crime (during his appeal) that he did not commit he prays this prayer, “Dear heavenly father, you know and I know that I’m an innocent man.  Please reveal this miscarriage of justice during the new trial. Please protect me and give me strength to endure, and please protect my loved ones.” [2] Even after he is convicted of more crimes he did not commit, he seeks redemption and justice.  He reads the psalms seeking for God’s word to be true in his life.  “Flipping to the dog-eared pages of my Bible, I read from the Book of Psalms to ease my mind.

In thee, O LORD, do I put my trust: let me never be put to confusion.  Deliver me in thy righteousness, and cause me to escape: incline thine ear unto me, and save me.  Deliver me, O my God, out of the hand of the wicked, out of the hand of unrighteousness and cruel man.”[3] As Ronald has one last chance to be found innocent, and with the help of DNA testing he is found innocent and freed after 11 years of jail time.

The guilt of putting Ronald in jail for that period of time, reverberates in Jennifer’s soul and the guilt kills her inside.  “I looked around the den, at the photos of my three children smiling back at me from the walls, and a picture of Vinny and me on our wedding day.  Eleven years.  How do eleven years pass when you are locked up for a crime you didn’t commit? I couldn’t begin to imagine.  For me, they were eleven years measured in birthdays, first days of school, Christmas morning.  Ronald Cotton and I were exactly the same age, and he had none of those things because I’d picked him.  He’d lost eleven years of time with his family, eleven years of falling in love, getting married, having kids.  He looked forlorn on the television, hurt and bewildered.  The guilt suffocated me.”[4] Jennifer makes a bold decision to meet the person that she sent to jail as a criminal that was in fact innocent.

“Jennifer asked me questions about life in prison, how I had survived.  She also asked me how my life had been since I had gotten out, how I was getting along.  I had to believe God had a plan,” I said, “and that this miscarriage of justice would one day be revealed.  I used to read the Book of Psalms a lot.”[5] God is mighty and just, this book gives one of the most contemporary true stories of redemption and justice.  Upon meeting Ronald, Jennifer embraces him.  “All I could think was: Had I really just been in the arms of the man I had accused of raping me?”[6]

Theological Reflection:

I will let Scripture speak:

Exodus 23:1-3, 6-7

1 “Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness.  2 Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, 3 and do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit… 6 “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. 7 Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.”

Psalm 9:7-9

7 The LORD reigns forever;
he has established his throne for judgment.

8 He will judge the world in righteousness;
he will govern the peoples with justice.

9 The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.

Psalm 11:7

For the LORD is righteous,
he loves justice;
upright men will see his face.

Ephesians 1:7-8

7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight

My prayer is this in light of this book:

Jeremiah 10:23-24

23 I know, O LORD, that a man’s life is not his own;
it is not for man to direct his steps.

24 Correct me, LORD, but only with justice—
not in your anger,
lest you reduce me to nothing.

Conclusions:

Despite the disclaimer about the content of this book, I highly recommend this book as a contemporary story of redemption.[7] Since it is both through the eyes of the accused and the accuser that adds merit to the story.  We all stand accused of the sin that so easily entangles our souls, but Christ has redeemed us through the power of the cross and His resurrection.  Much like Ronald, Christ was accused although innocent.  Much unlike Ronald though Christ died an innocent man, for the sins of the world to redeem sinners of which I am the foremost.  Ronald was proven innocent and freed by the acts of a just God.  This story is a rousing tale of Redemption, Reconciliation, Justice, and Forgiveness; that parallels how God has redeemed us through Christ.

In Christ alone, John


[1] From the “about the authors” section from the book.

[2] Thompson-Cannino, Jennifer, Ronald Cotton , and Erin Torneo. Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009) 122.

[3] Ibid. 176-177.

[4] Ibid. 237-238.

[5] Ibid. 245.

[6] Ibid. 250.

[7] If you have a problem with reading about prison, and mild details about rape, then do not read this book.

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