Distinguished Lecturers tell their story of injustice and forgiveness

April 2, 2014

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Distinguished Lecturers

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — The University of Wisconsin-Platteville hosted Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton as this year’s Distinguished Lecturers. The duo has written the best-selling book, “Picking Cotton,” which chronicles the duo’s journey of forgiveness. They spoke at the Williams Fieldhouse on April 2 to a crowd of approximately 1,200.

Thompson was a 22-year-old college student in North Carolina on July 28, 1984 when a man broke into her apartment, placed a knife to her throat and raped her. After Thompson identified Cotton twice, once with a photographic line up and again in person, he was prosecuted and found guilty. He was sentenced to life plus 54 years in prison. Following 11 years of incarceration and DNA testing, proving his innocence, Cotton was released.

Thompson and Cotton laid out their story in “Picking Cotton,” and they travel the world talking about forgiveness and injustice in the criminal justice system.

“It’s a story about the criminal justice system and the failures in the criminal justice system,” said Thompson. “Who actually does it fail? Who gets caught up in it? Who gets good representation and who doesn’t? It’s also a story about sexual violence and violence against women, and what happens to the victims, and how does our life change? It’s a story about race and class. It’s a story about forgiveness and redemption. There are many layers to the story.”

Over time, Cotton was able to forgive Thompson. “I had anger built up inside but I had to find a way to relieve it from my body and mind,” he said. “I just continued to put positive steps in front of positive steps. I had to realize the good Lord wasn’t going to put any more in front of me than I could bear.”

“Both of us have tried to follow our hearts and do the right thing,” said Thompson. “I think that’s what makes this a good partnership.”

“I got tired of hurting myself, of hurting inside,” added Cotton. “I just had to let it go and live my life freely. I just forgave Jennifer because I needed to live a peaceful and easy life.”

Thompson apologized to Cotton in person following his release from prison. Since that day, they have worked to tell their story and reform the criminal justice system. “I think it’s deeply flawed,” said Thompson. “The system is just not designed to work for the poor, the mentally ill, the people of color. It’s really, truly designed to incarcerate them.”

As for advice to those students who will be entering the criminal justice field, Thompson advised them to be an advocate for the truth and not to let their ego get in the way. “If you are going to go into the criminal justice system, then honor truth and justice,” said Thompson. “If you see that something is wrong, be the kind of person who will step forward and stop it.”

Written by: Dan Wackershauser, UW-Platteville University Information and Communications, (608) 342-1194, wackersd@uwplatt.edu

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