By Tyler O’Neill
Jennifer Thompson-Cannino is an advocate for judicial reform as well as a member of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission. Jennifer is one of the authors in Picking Cotton, a rape survivor, and a mother of three. I was lucky enough to interview Jennifer on several different topics, such as her thoughts on the death penalty and her views on judicial reform, as well as her nonprofit organization.
Thompson-Cannino spoke at Hilbert College on October 17.
Tyler O’Neill: Picking Cotton is told through alternating first-person narration. Why did you choose to present the story that way?
Jennifer Thompson-Cannino: Because it was both of our stories, and I knew that. It’s more compelling when you hear someone’s actual voice as opposed to a third-person story. Also, there was no way it could be a linear approach where it was me talking about our story or Ron talking about our story, because it was both of us living these parallel journeys at the same time. It really needed to be told in our voices. I was really committed to that approach. Several people came along during my journey and told me that the book would never be published, and this should be third person, and I think sometimes when you have a gut instinct about what’s going to work and what’s not going to work, you go with your gut.
O’Neill: I think the first-person narration worked so well. It was gripping, and I felt like we were right there with you through the journey.
Thompson-Cannino: That’s what I wanted. I wanted everyone to be with me and Ron as we traveled through this.
O’Neill: I honestly couldn’t put the book down. I read straight through it, because I was so compelled. I wanted to know what happened next. What do you think sustained Ron while he was in prison—including moving through different prisons and sometimes even states?
Thompson-Cannino: I work with a lot of exonerees, males and females, in different parts of the country. Not all of them can sustain the hope. I think for Ronald, there were several things. One, he knew he was innocent. I think that gave him this sense of, “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m a good person.” He didn’t go into prison with this sense of shame or guilt, he knew he was an innocent person.
Another thing that I think sustained him, and he’s been very fortunate to have this still today, he has a very large and supportive family. No one in his family thought he had done it. Everybody was behind him and loved him and supported him. He had great commitment with them. I think a lot of our exonerees don’t have family. They’ll talk about being in prison for twenty years and not getting a visit from anyone. That wasn’t Ron’s reality.
I think the third part was he has a great faith in religion and he believed that there was a reason God put him in this position. There was a reason he was going to be OK and survive it. He often talks about that God wouldn’t put anything on him that he couldn’t handle. I think when you put those three things together, that’s what sustained him. That’s not to say, that he wasn’t angry the first couple of years. There were moments when he was like, “I’m going to kill Bobby Poole.” If he had killed Bobby Poole, Ron would not only be in prison but he would get the death penalty in North Carolina. He didn’t go through all eleven years with this sense of calm, quiet resolve. The first couple of years, he was angry and rightfully so. I think that visit with his father and the visit with his sister Dianne really shifted for him how he would go through the rest of his life.
O’Neill: I remember reading in the book that his father came to meet him, and Ron was talking to his father about how he thinks Bobby Poole did it and how he was going to kill him. His father brought up a great point, he said, “You know if you do do that, even if you’re innocent, you deserve to be in here, then, because you killed Bobby Poole.” That was a really interesting point that was brought up in the book.
Thompson-Cannino: And the fact that Ron actually listened to his dad. There’s a lot in that particular scene that really shows about Ron and his relationship. His parents have been divorced, and its not like he had lived with his dad, but you know there was this part of Ron that still had a respect for his father and what his father was trying to tell him.
O’Neill: Absolutely, that’s very strong will on Ron’s part to be able to listen to him and consciously be able to make that decision. How do you think race played a role in the case in regard to the police department, the detectives, and Ron’s defense attorneys?
Thompson-Cannino: Ron had great defense attorneys. I have to say that. They stayed with him throughout both trials. They stayed committed to him throughout all of his journey and, still to this day, are very, very committed to Ron. Matter of fact, most people involved in the case, from Mike Gauldin to Rob Johnson to Tom Lambeth to Rich Rosen and myself are all still very very close. I don’t think race played into the defense side of it, ever.
The reason why race played into this, and I always say this to people, the truth is Bobby Poole is a black man. It was not like To Kill a Mockingbird where there is a white victim and there is actually white perpetrator, but we can’t point our finger to a white person, so we just pick any black person walking down the street. Bobby Poole was an African-American male and Ronald was an African-American male so, in that regard, race did not play any part.
Where race played into this is the fact that Ronald, and I didn’t really understand this until Ronald and I became friends, that Ronald had only dated white women in this community. That shouldn’t matter and who cares, but there was one police officer who hated Ron for his relationships with white females. Not only did that particular police officer want Ron to go down for this, that actually came up in trial and should never have been used. Well you know your ex-girlfriend was white, right? But it did. It did play a part in it. Sadly, that continues to happen today. We know race plays a critical role in our judicial system. Until we can face that and be honest about it, I don’t know that we can change it. It has to be admitted and reconciled.
O’Neill: Have you had any contact with Mary Reynolds and if so what did you discuss?
Thompson-Cannino: No, and Ron and I talked about this a long long time ago, that if she ever came forward and wanted to meet with us and talk to us about this, and her feelings and her traumas and her harm, both of us would be absolutely receptive to that and want to do that. But, we also know that everybody deals with that in their own way, and she has elected to do that privately, and we respect that. But, no, I would never do that. I don’t do that with any victims and survivors. Unless they approach me, and they want to talk about things, everybody has their right to take their own journey and choose how they deal with it.
O’Neill: I know you and Ron are both advocates for the Innocence Project, does your work also encompass support for rape and sexual assault victims and if so, can you share some examples?
Thompson-Cannino: Well, you know, I’ve been doing this work for a long time. Ron has really taken a backseat to a lot of this work in the last seven or eight years because his health has been declining. I work with assault survivors all the time. I mean, in any event that I am at, in any speech I ever give, there are always rape survivors in the audience. There will be rape survivors in the audience next week at your college. We live in a time where sexual violence is rampant. I know by sheer numbers, if I look at an audience, I know that a third of all the females sitting out there will be assault survivors. They’ll come up to me and talk to me. I work with them all the time, I work on campuses and, of course, in a lot of the cases we deal with in wrongful convictions are sexual assaults and rapes. So, I work with a lot of those women that their cases have resulted in wrongful convictions.
I have a non-profit called “Healing Justice,” HealingJusticeProject.org. I founded it a little over two years ago. We are the only national non-profit that works in the aftermath of wrongful convictions for all people harmed. We work with the survivors, the murder victim’s families, we work with exonerees, we work with their families, we work with the system as a whole by trying to address the harm that is caused from the criminal justice field. In that, there are an awful lot of rape survivors, like myself.
O’Neill: I did not know that statistic about the one and three females. That’s shocking, to say the least.
Thompson-Cannino: That’s a number that gets thrown out there bu,t honestly, Tyler, I think the numbers are higher. I don’t think it’s one-in-three.
O’Neill: Absolutely, I think sometimes some people don’t come forward with it, which definitely, like you said, can be a reason the number could be higher.
Thompson-Cannino: Absolutely, eighty percent of rapes are never reported. If we are drawing our number as one-in three, that’s based on reports. If eighty percent are unreported, it doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that it’s probably closer to two-in-three. We have to go beyond this stereotypical “stranger breaks into my house and rapes me at knifepoint,” because most sexual assaults are committed by a family member or someone that they know. Sexual assaults can be anything from our President groping people (that’s a sexual assault) to rape is a sexual assault to any number of things are sexual assaults. By the time you get be my age, you will find in almost any group of women, that all of us have survived some type of a sexual assault.
O’Neill: That’s a terrible, terrible thing that I can only imagine. Another thing that I thought was really interesting that you brought up with the organization is that you’re a national group that deals with every victim, any exonerees, the actual victim, the victim’s family, and you try and work with the judicial system. You’ve attended many marches and protests; how do you think your advocacy or just everyone’s advocacy has changed the conversation?
Thompson-Cannino: I think what my advocacy has done is to educate the criminal justice system about what we look like when it fails. The truth is, more often than not, the victims of these wrongful convictions are forgotten. By the time the criminal justice system works itself out twenty-five years later and the person is exonerated, the survivors of the murder victim family members are just background noise to a story. They kind of get dropped off or forgotten and no one has communicated with them, and if there’s a rape survivor who was also the eyewitness, then we get blamed for it. We get blamed for the wrongful conviction. Which is absolutely, one-thousand percent incorrect. No rape survivor ever wants to get it wrong, ever. Why would I ever want to see an innocent person go to prison for something they didn’t do to me?
One of the things that I advocate and try to flip the conversation around and change the narrative, when the criminal justice system fails, here are all the people that get hurt. We can’t stop the conversation at, the person who gets hurt is Ronald Cotton or the exoneree, because Ronald is not the only person who got hurt in a wrongful conviction. His mother got hurt, his father got hurt, his siblings got hurt, I was hurt, and my family got hurt. Beyond that, we left a serial rapist on the streets of North Carolina to commit six other rapes that year.
When I try to educate and advocate for criminal justice system reform, it is showing the totality, or what I like to call the concentric circle of harm. You can’t look at this singular player as the only person who got hurt. We know that dozens and dozens and dozens of people got hurt based on that one particular failed criminal justice system oversight procedure. Lots of people got hurt. When you start talking to educators, legislators, and lawyers about that, they’re all of a sudden like, “Oh God. I never thought about that.”
And when you say to them: imagine being a juror in a trial where you are told information that is wrong. You base your decision on a person’s guilt based on incorrect or just absent information that’s not there or not given to you. Here you are rendering a verdict as a juror of guilty, and god forbid you advocate for the death penalty, and then you open up the newspaper twenty-five years later to find out that the person you had sentenced to death or give a life sentence without parole to is coming out of prison. But, their mother has died, and their children are grown up and now they don’t have any options and no housing. How do you feel as a juror? How do you reconcile? When we talk about this, when we talk about wrongful convictions, the harm goes deep and wide.
That’s one of the things I’ve really tried to show when I’m out there speaking. We’re failing. We’re really failing in a large, deep, and epic way. The extent is huge. It’s not just the financial expense, we left a guilty person on the street and put an innocent person in prison, but the human toll and the human cost is just amazing. It’s enormous. I do believe that our story and healing justice and the work I’ve been doing for twenty years now, I do believe we’ve had a significant impact on the understanding of wrongful convictions and try and put reforms in place at the beginning of a trial to minimize the damage.
O’Neill: It was really interesting reading the book, when Ron was the first exonerated person in North Carolina, and I was shocked to see that he would only get $10,000 for each year he spent in prison. I was born in 1995, and I thought at this point they always had DNA evidence. I thought they always get the right person, and it’s just wild to even comprehend. There are still people, to this day, who are wrongly in prison, and I think the Innocence Project is a great initiative. Like you said, it affects more than just one person, it affects their family, it affects our judicial system, it affects their finances, there’s so much to it. I really do think all the marches and protests are working so well to start a discussion and to start reform about how can we get this right. There are examples of flaws in our justice system, do you have any personal suggestions to help change it for the better?
Thompson-Cannino: Well, the first change that I think has to be put into place is we’ve got to start training these new lawyers that are coming into the system. That the system has got to be based on truth and transparency. I mean, it has to be. It can no longer be one of these things where it’s a game, you know, where whoever wins the round is the winner, because the winner needs to be the community. The winner needs to be justice, and we’re not serving justice if our egos and power are driving our decisions and how we go about applying laws.
It’s kind of bringing up a new set of lawyers that really want to go into the criminal justice system with a sense of being a social engineer and not being a parasite. As far as reforms go, I believe that there has to be accountability, and we don’t have that in the system. Prosecutors have full immunity, police have full immunity, so we have a system where if you screw up someone’s life, you lie, you cheat, and you engage in negligence or malicious misconduct, there has to be some type of reciprocity and accountability, and we don’t have that. We just don’t. The criminal justice system really works in an archaic way. We make medical improvements all the time. If something happens in a hospital, there’s a problem. If a doctor amputates the wrong limb or has a misdiagnosis, there is accountability, right? There’s a lawsuit and then the medical community kind of jumps into action and says, “Oh my God, we can’t let this happen again.” The criminal justice system doesn’t work that way. It is archaic. I think the reason why it is archaic is because the people who get screwed over by the criminal justice system, for the most part, are poor, and they’re people of color. The criminal justice system just simply doesn’t care.
O’Neill: It’s really interesting you brought that up with lawyers. It’s almost like they want that guilty conviction rather than finding the truth. Because of your work with the innocence project, I was wondering what your views are on capital punishment. If you feel one particular way, can you elaborate on why you feel that way?
Thompson-Cannino: In my former life, I was a supporter of the death penalty, because I simply didn’t know anything about it, and I didn’t understand it. Most people base their political leanings or their religious leanings on whatever their birthright is. You come into the world, and your parents tell you you’re Republican or Democrat or you’re Catholic or Jewish or you’re for or against the death penalty, and you kind of grow up with these values and these beliefs, and you never really question them, because you don’t need to. My life has taken a different trajectory. In my work and over the years, I realized that our criminal justice system fails and that it fails a lot. Because I know it fails, and I’ve met many many people who have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death and have been within hours of execution, I began to really scratch my head and say, “You know, if we have a system that fails, and we apply death in cases, then we have to admit that we are sentencing innocent people to death, and we have actually executed innocent people.” You have to be honest about that. It has happened.
That approach, that there is innocence and therefore I can’t be in favor of the death penalty, was an easy conversion for me. I can’t be in favor of the death penalty, because there might be innocent people who are executed. But then, I started really thinking, do I want to be in favor of a system regardless of whether they’re innocent or guilty and we’re sentencing people to death? Is that an appropriate application of punishment? Who are we to be in the business of killing people? The more I really challenged myself and peeled back my own layers and began to look even deeper in the system, even if you’re not innocent, is the death penalty something I can get behind? The answer came back as absolutely not. I can never be in favor of any criminal justice system that executes people and signs your death certificate as homicide by state. If we are signing death certificates as murdered by the state of North Carolina, I can never be in favor of that kind of punishment.
O’Neill: Yeah, we have it right in our Constitution, there’s a rule against cruel and unusual punishment. Is that not the cruelest punishment of all? Do you think confirmation bias played a role in identifying Ron, and how do you think confirmation bias still plays a role in our criminal justice system if it does?
Thompson-Cannino: Well, I mean yeah, of course it did. Of course, it did. When you pick someone out of a lineup and you’re told, “Good job. That’s who we thought it was.” I mean you go from being like, “I’m pretty sure that’s the person” to “Well, of course it’s the person. I’m absolutely right.” Not only does confirmation bias play an integral role in the case, but it completely changed my memory. I think that happens a lot in the system, not just for eyewitnesses, but for lawyers. They go into something, and they create this tunnel vision and, by God, they make it work. They use the whole concept of motivated reasoning, right? You add in reasons why you’re absolutely right and, boy, at the end of the day, no one is going to tell you that you could have possibly made a mistake.
Photo: Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, courtesy University of Kentucky