Convocation Starts Dialogue for Students
Wheelock opened the 2012-2013 academic year for students, faculty, and staff with a Convocation ceremony featuring guest speakers Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, authors of the best-selling book — and Wheelock summer reading assignment — Picking Cotton. The authors received honorary Wheelock degrees, while their story of wrongful incarceration and forgiveness immediately launched students on a course of critical reflection and discussion.
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a 4.0 GPA and lofty goals for her future. Her path was dramatically altered, however, when a man broke into her apartment, put a knife to her throat, and raped her. In that moment, her determination took an entirely different direction and set her on a path that would transform her.
She focused all attention on memorizing her rapist's features. Searching for scars, tattoos, and any unique features that could help her identify him, she was certain that she could put him in prison for life. After a composite sketch, lineup identification, and trial, Jennifer Thompson's testimony and memory led to a life sentence for Ronald Cotton.
Years later, Thompson-Cannino was asked to provide a DNA sample for further analysis of the case. She agreed to the request, positive that her identification of Cotton would be held up by science. In an instant, both lives changed, when it was revealed that Ronald Cotton was not her rapist, and after spending 11 years in prison as an innocent man, he was released.
Devastated that her actions led to the imprisonment of an innocent man, Thompson-Cannino reached out to Cotton to apologize, and in an act of true generosity, he forgave her. Their unlikely friendship and bond became the basis for the New York Times best-selling book Picking Cotton.
Today, Thompson-Cannino and Cotton travel the country, speaking out in favor of DNA testing and working to protect the wrongfully convicted by sharing their personal stories of hope and redemption.