By Al Behel
On January 17, 1985 Ronald Cotton was sentenced to life in prison for raping a 22 year old college student by the name of Jennifer Thompson. When Thompson picked Cotton out of police photos and later a line-up, there was no doubt in her mind that this was the man who had assaulted her with a knife to her throat. She would never forget his threatening words, “Shut up or I’ll cut you!”
Two years after his imprisonment Cotton won a second trial when a fellow prisoner, Bobby Poole, was overheard bragging that Cotton was serving time for two rapes that he himself had committed. Again Jennifer Thompson was convincing. he was unwavering in her testimony that she had never seen Poole, but that Cotton was her rapist. He was again sentenced to life in prison.
Eleven years after the attack the detective who had assisted in prosecuting Cotton knocked on Jennifer Thompson’s door. Standing in her kitchen he struggled to reak the news. "Jennifer," he said. "You were wrong. Ronald Cotton didn't rape you. It was Bobby Poole.” New DNA evidence showed that it could not have been Cotton, but that Poole was indeed her rapist. Thompson was stunned beyond belief. How could it be? How could she have been so sure? How could she send an innocent man to prison for 11 years? What could she do with all the hate and anger that had dominated every waking minute?
Thompson’s guilt was overwhelming. How could Cotton ever forgive her for such a horrible mistake? Eventually she decided she had to meet the man whose 11 years she had taken. The meeting was arranged at a church in the town where the rape occurred. Asking the minister and her husband to wait outside, she faced Cotton alone. How would he react to her? What would she say? "I'm sorry," she said. "If I spent every day for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn't come close to what I feel." Ronald Cotton was calm and quiet. Finally, he spoke. “I am not mad at you….I just want you to have a good life.”
For two hours they sat and talked about what had happened. Instead of hate, Cotton extended forgiveness and healing to the woman who had taken 11 years of his life. They embraced and cried together. Instead of being enemies, they have become good friends. Today, they talk regularly and have written a book together, entitled “Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption.” It is a testimony of the power of forgiveness.I often wonder how Jesus could forgive me. He was innocent, but I am guilty. I deserved to die, but He deserved to live. I sentenced Him to the cross. Still, He loves me and forgives me. He even calls me His “friend” (John 15:13-15). I come into His presence with a broken heart and contrite spirit, He lifts me up. He embraces me with compassion. And I am free. I am forgiven.
- Al Behel served the Great Smoky Mountains Church of Christ in Pigeon Forge, TN, for many years prior to this death in April 2022. The congregation may be contacted through their website - https://gsmchurchofchrist.com/