A rape victim and the man she falsely accused—in good faith—collaborate to share an important, affecting story of fatally mistaken identity.
Thompson-Cannino was a college student at Elon College in1984, when a knife-wielding man broke into her Burlington, N.C., apartment and raped her. She saw him clearly and escaped the apartment before he could harm her further. After working with a police sketch artist and examining mug shots gathered by police, she identified 22-year-old Cotton, who was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. He maintained his innocence from the time police approached him, but nobody except his family believed him. Sophisticated DNA testing did not exist in the mid-’80s, and few people inside or outside the criminal-justice system understood the unreliability of eyewitness identification, especially across racial lines. (Thompson-Cannino is Caucasian, Cotton African-American.) Convicted prisoners rarely receive attention when claiming innocence from their cells, and they usually lack the money, the legal assistance and the support network to make their assertions heard. Thompson didn’t have much money, but he drew strength from his family and found unusually receptive lawyers willing to represent him pro bono in time-consuming, seemingly hopeless post-conviction proceedings. Journalist Torneo alternates between the first-person narratives of Thompson-Cannino and Cotton. When she heard that a DNA test had set him free after 11 years in prison, she was stunned and guilt-ridden. After seeing a TV documentary about how eyewitnesses make mistakes, in which Cotton said he wondered why he’d never heard from the woman responsible for his wrongful incarceration, she arranged to meet him. Despite the nervousness of her relatives and the anger of his wife, they built up mutual trust, became friends and eventually began traveling together to educate audiences about flaws in the criminal-justice system.
Injustice and redemption are overused words, but this heartfelt joint memoir justifies its subtitle.