Books: Picking Cotton

What happens when the justice system fails: A joint memoir by victim and wrongly accused.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

One night in 1984, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was raped at knifepoint in Burlington, North Carolina. A few days later, the cops got a call from a local restaurant manager who said his busboy, Ronald Cotton, resembled the composite of the suspect. When Cotton heard the police were looking for him, he wasn’t worried: He had been asleep at home on the night of the rape. But he mixed up his alibi, so Thompson-Cannino was brought in to identify him in a lineup. She did, and her eyewitness testimony guaranteed his conviction.

Eleven years later, when dna evidence exonerated Cotton, both he and Thompson-Cannino were forced to confront reality: He faced a difficult transition from prison to freedom, and she faced the truth about that night and her part in undoing an innocent man’s life. But instead of going their separate ways, the two decided to meet and eventually began corresponding. Picking Cotton, their joint memoir, tells the story of how, in spite of their history, the two became friends.

Thompson-Cannino and Cotton’s writing is clichéd, but their powerful story transcends the purple prose. Their intent is not to shock; it is to reveal how, more than 23 years after Thompson-Cannino fingered Cotton in a lineup, she could say, “Thank God I picked you.” An old adage says that the justice system eventually corrects itself, no matter how grave the error. In Picking Cotton, when the system fails, redemption comes from ordinary people.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend