Wrongful conviction of a brutal crime leads victims to form an unlikely friendship

Time moves people. In 11 years, you can fall in love, change careers, start a family – or spend that time in jail for a crime you didn’t commit. Friendship from among those who convicted you is unlikely. Yet, in the most of unusual of cases, Jennifer Thompson, the victim of an appalling crime, would eventually share an indescribable bond with the man who was wrongfully convicted of an offence he did not commit.

In 1985, Ronald Cotton was convicted of first-degree rape and burglary. Two years later, he was retried and convicted for two counts of each crime.

In the end, 11 years after his original conviction, Cotton was exonerated with DNA evidence.

“My first response was fear – that [Cotton], after 11 years of being falsely imprisoned, would come after me and try to hurt me or my children,” Thompson said. “Once you go through the fear, it’s kind of a train wreck of emotion.”

After Cotton’s exoneration, about two years after he had been released, the two had separately participated in a documentary for the Public Broadcasting Service titled What Jennifer Saw. 

“The last thing I say in the film is that ‘I know [Cotton] is innocent but I still see his face in my nightmares,’ and the last thing that [Cotton] said is ‘I know she is sorry, but I need to hear that from her mouth,’” Thompson said. “When I heard that I realized I was never going to be able to move forward … until I saw the man who was not the monster.”

According to Thompson, friendship was one of the last things she had expected to come from this unexpected turn. In April 1997, the two met and shared emotional apologies and insights.

“We spent the rest of that meeting talking about … the time we spent afraid, the losses we suffered – all at the hands of this serial rapist Bobby Poole,” Thompson said. “We had both been victims of [Poole]. We had both been victims of a criminal justice system that often doesn’t get it right.”

That afternoon started a very long, indefinable friendship. Thompson described the progression of their relationship as “organic,” developing over time through an exploration of their “parallel” experiences. Slowly the duo grew into the role of advocating and teaching about subjects like eyewitness memory and race and class in the criminal justice system.

Thompson emphasized how crucial trust and respect were at every step of their relationship.

“Our relationship is very strange,” she said. “He is a part of my family … I protect him and I will always protect [Cotton]. And [Cotton] will always protect me. It’s something deeper than a friendship. It’s almost spiritual.”