Harm multiplies when the innocent are wrongly convicted

In June of 1995, I found myself on a journey I never wanted, never asked for and never would have wished on another human being.  I learned that the man whom I had identified in court as my rapist – the man whose face, breath and evilness I had dreamt about for 11 years – was innocent.  The man whom I believed had destroyed me that night, who had stolen everything from me, and whom I hated with an all-consuming rage had lost 4000 days, eleven Christmases, eleven birthdays, and relationships with loved ones.  And on June 30th of 1995, Ronald Cotton, the man I had hated and prayed for to die, walked out of prison a free and innocent man.

My rage and hatred had been misplaced. I was wrong.  I had sent an innocent man to prison.  A third of his life was over, and the shame, guilt and fear began to suffocate me.  I had let down everyone -- the police department, the district attorney’s office, the community, the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole, and especially Ronald Cotton and his family. 

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Several years after Ronald was freed, I received a phone call from Bobby Poole’s last victim.  I remember hearing her story about what happened to her and realizing that we all had left him on the streets to commit further crimes – rapes -- that we possibly could have prevented if Ronald had not been locked up for something he had never done.  The knowledge that Mr. Poole had been left at liberty to hurt other women paralyzed me and sent me into a backward spiral that took years to recover from.

This journey has taught me that the impact of wrongful convictions goes so much further than a victim and the wrongfully convicted.  The pool of victims from 1984 was huge – me, Ron, the police department, our families, and the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole all suffered.

This case crystalized for me why it is so important to have laws in place that protect the innocent.  Those laws would be important enough if they only protected the innocent, but they do so much more.  They also protect the potential victims of real perpetrators, the families and children of the wrongfully convicted person, and – ultimately – the victim who learns the truth. 

The Justice for All Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress, allows men like Ronald to obtain post-conviction DNA testing that can lead to their freedom and to the conviction of the guilty.  Without access to such testing, innocent men will remain in prison, real perpetrators will remain free, and new victims will have to experience the same horrors and indignities that I did.  I urge Congress to pass the Justice For All Act now so that we can live in a world where the truly guilty are behind bars and the innocent are free.

Thompson is the co-author with Ronald Cotton of the book Picking Cotton, a memoir they wrote together after DNA testing proved that Cotton had been wrongly convicted of raping Thompson as a college student.  

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