Q: The composite sketch of the person who committed the crime. What did you think about it?
COTTON: I observed it carefully, and I knew that there was no resemblance of that composite sketch of me other than maybe the nose. I mean the guy had ears poke out at the top, mustache, dark rings around the eye, very short hair. I knew it wasn't me. I think [I] cut the picture out the newspaper and kept it.
Q: What were you feeling in court, especially in the first trial, when the victim identified you?
COTTON: I felt she was told to. I felt that she had actually made a mistake. She wasn't sure and still I just felt she was told to pick me.
COTTON: By one of the detectives. I do not know which one. I mean no one's perfect. Mistakes people make, myself and everyone else.
Q: And if you go back to the lineup, did you know you were being picked out in the lineup or not?
COTTON: No, I didn't. But I kind of felt that I would be.
COTTON: I just had the strangest feeling that it would because of my past.
Q: What happened at the lineup and what was going through your mind?
COTTON: When I was picked up, Detective Gauldin and Detective Lowe from the sheriff department had instructed me that I was enroute to the Burlington Police Department for a physical line up. Once arriving there, we lined up in a little separate room and we had to step out and really look hard and say, "Shut up I'll kill you," and then from there to a 360 degree turn and step back in place and they were then looking for a voice identification by the little quote that was on the card. And the vision that she detected from the assailant. Side view and everything.
Q: The first trial--what did you think about the jury?
COTTON: Well, I was just hoping that they wouldn't just listen to one side and kind of like balance the scale before making the decision that they came upon. I knew, like I say, that I didn't commit the crime and I knew a lot of evidence was withheld that could of changed the mind of the verdict that was read before the jurors. But that's done, that's over with and it's just the way it is.
Q: You mean evidence that could have showed them you were innocent?
COTTON: Yes. The incident involving Poole, the identification about the similarities that the victims said that they recognized by this perpetrator--all of that was withheld. And I think that if it had been introduced before the jurors that they would have had a different verdict.
Q: What did you think in that first trial when the verdict was pronounced?
COTTON: It was hurting ... I knew that they had came out with the wrong verdict and it was hard. The thing that the judge said that I was a menace to society and things of that nature he had already based his judgment in his heart and mind that I was actually guilty, not knowing the circumstances and everything revolving around the case. And it wasn't a good feeling that I felt. I hurted it then and I think about it now at times and I still hurt, but I cannot let that get me down. My life must continue.
Q: You won an appeal, you got a second trial, how did that feel?
COTTON: Well, I felt good about it knowing that I had another chance and I felt real good knowing that I was being vindicated from those charges, but they came back with another charge. And once learning that I would be charged with another charge that I know I didn't do it just make me drop my head down. It's not like I was giving up anything. It was like just going to war, had to fight. I was continuously to be accused of something that I know I did not do and I wasn't about to give up.
Q: You didn't testify in the first trial. You decided to testify in the second trial. How come?
COTTON: At the second trial I decided to defend myself because I refused to do so the first time. It hurt me because I didn't and that was something that stayed on my mind, doing my time before I was granted a new trial. I wanted them to hear my side instead of the others.
Q: The jury wasn't in the courtroom, but you were in the courtroom I think when Bobby Poole was on the stand and the women looked at him?
COTTON: Yes, I was.
Q: When those two women said--in looking at Bobby Poole and looking at you and said it's Ron Cotton, not Bobby Poole, how did you feel at that point?
COTTON: Well, when Poole was on the witness stand and the victims had the opportunity to see the two of us in the same courtroom and they said it was Ronald Cotton instead of Bobby Poole, I felt that they knew that right then and there that a mistake had been made. They just didn't do the thing that they ought to have as far as correcting it then and there, instead of letting it go on the length of time that it did. I can't say right now how they feel or how they felt. I think it was more so just confusing and mistakenly ...
Q: So you thought they had made a mistake, but they weren't ready to correct it?
Q: And how did you feel when you heard the verdict?
COTTON: It was like I was spaced out in another world. I couldn't believe what was going on. It's like a dream or something ... just unbelievable. I'm the one that didn't do this and yet I'm being put on trial before a judge and jury for something I didn't do. It's like, "Hey this can't be real." But it was happening.
Q: Tell what happened at your sentencing, when the judge asked if you had something to say ...
COTTON: Well, the judge gave me an opportunity to speak and I was hurting so bad inside I felt my voice maybe tremble or something so I just asked him [if it was] OK to sing a song and he gave me permission to do so and I did.
Q: What do you think of the system?
COTTON: I don't feel like this has only happened to me. I feel like there are others, not only here in the State of North Carolina, but many other different states. I feel like they know that they have made a mistake. Then if they can get around it without having to open up and be honest, some of them will. I mean and I'm quite sure it will hurt them to know that they had to cover up for things that they mistakenly done, and it be kind of hurting to them, to just step forward and apologize. They would tell others that they're sorry. They would like to apologize, but the majority of the time when it comes to that individual, they don't.
Q: How did you spend your time in jail?
COTTON: Well, by playing card games, singing and writing and exercising, reading novels and doing everything that I possibly could to reach out and hope that someone would see just what was happening to me, by being falsely incarcerated.
I was trying to do everything within my power to prove my innocence by writing legal foundations, People magazine, National Enquirer and just organizations that would perhaps take the time to look into this like the NAACP, the Civil Liberties Union and places of that nature, but I never did (seek) assistance concerning my situation. It was like being that my cases were on appeal that I had to wait it out and see what the outcome was going to be that come up here was unsuccessful, then they would perhaps look into the matter.
Q: Tell about writing your lawyer about Bobby Poole--what you were writing to him about.
COTTON: Well, during my incarceration after looking into this myself the best that I knew how, I had strong belief in my heart and mind that Poole was the individual. I had written to my attorney back then, which was Mr. Moseley and Monroe and gathering the information that I did on to them in the hope that they would look into this further, which they did, but it took time for things to open up concerning this case. I mean it hurt so bad to be in prison knowing that this guy that actually committed the crime that I had to be housed in the same dorm with him for 30 days, lying over in that bed trying to figure out why doesn't he come on up and confess ... it was hard.
Q: What was your attitude in jail about doing the time? How did you try to maintain control over things?
COTTON: When I was serving my time, I tried to maintain a calm attitude by socializing with other inmates participating in activities such as basketball, some weight lifting, walking, speed bagging, singing in the gospel choir to try to relieve my mind from logging up with paying enough for something I know I didn't do, and it still wasn't that easy, I mean, but I took the time to sit down and listen to other inmates problems. That was a big help to me just going to the stress classes, some AA classes and ANA classes listening to other people's problems, helped me deal with my own.
Q: How did you first learn about DNA?
COTTON: When I first learned about DNA, it was far into the O.J. Simpson case. If I wasn't watching it on television, I listened to it on the radio. And ... they said that they had such a strong case on him by testing him with this DNA, I thought it would be a good thing to do on my case. So once they mentioned it to me, I didn't hesitate to tell them to pursue the issue because I knew I was innocent. I didn't have anything to lose.
Q: Didn't you think maybe if they screwed up they could nail you forever or something?
COTTON: Well, [I] thought that if there wasn't anything to happen with the DNA testing that I knew I had a chance, but it's not guaranteed that those that are doing the testing [will] always be honest. Knowing that they could be covering up for others, so therefore, by agreeing to this DNA testing, it was a big chance, but, like I said before, I didn't hesitate because I knew I hadn't committed crimes, so therefore I was 100% with it.
Q: Did your lawyers tell you, "If you do this and it comes back wrong nothing more we can do for you."
COTTON: Well, they didn't actually come out and tell me as much at the time. They were on a case at the time. Tom Lambeth and Rich Rosen indicated in a letter that they would pursue the DNA testing, that if the test come back stating anything different saying that I'm the one, then I didn't have any more options as far as appeal or anything, that I would spend the rest of my entire life within the Department of Correction. So by me knowing from my own heart that I didn't, I said, "Go with it."
Q: How did you find out you were a free man?
COTTON: I called home to see if they had learned anything pertaining to my case, which they didn't, so therefore I had the permission on my time to call Richard Rosen--to call him at any time that I felt necessary to do so. And they were still working on the Thompson case and that I would be coming back to court soon. So from there I took it that they were still going to fight this Thompson case, and I was just going to go back for a time. The correction officer evidently had more information about it than myself, and they continued to tell me, "Well, you're going home, you're leaving in the morning." I was excited. I couldn't sleep.
I had given all my materials away as far as my cosmetics, radios because I felt like I didn't have need for them and I could forget all that by being in the free world once again. So I left it to someone that I felt needed it more than I did, and this was one of the guys that I had become close to in the system.
And so the next morning at six o'clock I was put in a car and headed back to North Carolina and once arriving, entered the courthouse, changed from the prison uniform to civilian clothes and from there to the courtroom, and Judge Allen stated the words that "Ronald Cotton, the charges that were pending against you are now dismissed. You're a free man to go," and just overwhelmed feeling ... I felt kind of strange, but it was a good feeling to know I'd be released.
Q: Do you remember seeing your lawyer, Phil Moseley, in the courtroom that day?
COTTON: I think Phil was crying at the time ... in the courtroom, I mean, because he had so much strong belief begin and he did his job, his job from the beginning to the end along with many others.
Q: Should the people who put you in jail feel guilty about it?
COTTON: Well, to a certain degree. I mean I understand they were doing their job, and some of them do feel guilty, I understand, and I understand there are some that want to apologize, but they won't apologize. They'll just swallow their pride and continue on ... because that's their job...
Q: What would you say to the woman who pointed you out and said, "He's the guy." What would you say to her?
COTTON: What would I say to Miss Thompson? I would like to know how she feels right now. What does she have to say, in her own words to me. Could she face me? Or would she just break out in tears and cry. That's something I have always wondered.
Q: What do you think is the lesson of your story?
COTTON: I think the lesson of this story [is] it go to show that the justice system isn't always the best system. They make mistakes just like everyone else. They justify it, though, like admitting and owning up to the mistake when it's made, even though some of them do, some of them don't.
Q: What's your life about now?
COTTON: My life is about getting my life on track, not trying to make up for the lost time, but set myself some goals, a weekly, monthly or yearly and do the best of achieving. Stay out of trouble and enjoy life to the fullest, or I make an honest day's dollar. Stay away from the bad crowd, droves, put your head up and keep on going.
Q: Why aren't you bitter?
COTTON: Well, I guess I don't have that much bitterness is because like I say, from taking out a lot of my frustrations in there, instead of coming out here with me. I make sure ... I see some of these people that were involved in my case, some that took the stand, not with, but against me, point their finger and gave their statement, stating it, "I saw him here. I saw him wear these type of clothing." I can't do anything to try to hurt these people. It's not within my heart to do that.
I just want to live freely, happily because what they have said and done is something they're going to have to face later down the road. They don't have to worry about me retaliating against them for what happened. Obviously then the Good Lord handle it, he'll handle it, he knows best. I just ask him for peace, joy and happiness and put me on the right track.
Q: Do you think the state owes you something after all this?
COTTON: Well, I thought the state owes me more than some $5,000 compensation that they're willing to give due to the Statute of Limitation that instead the situation is this. I think that law should have been changed years ago, not just because what has happened to me, but you have to look at it how they change laws yearly, and it's not saying that they knew something like this was going to happen, because they didn't, but it has in the past and it's still happening. I think something ought to be done about getting that law changed. I'm not asking for an arm and a leg. I'm just asking to let me live. They made the mistake, I didn't, but I suffered from it. I still suffer from it.
Q: What kind of guy were you then in '84 when all this happened versus '95 when you got out?
COTTON: In '84, I was young. I was in the process of regaining a job that I had quit. I was trying to enjoy life to the fullest. I didn't have a steady girlfriend, but I was dating different women. I can't say what would have become of my life if this hadn't happened to me because I do not know.
Now that I've been taken away and back out in society, it has given me a better outlook on my life knowing where I want to go as far as the direction, that is the things I would care to achieve in life at this time. I will do that by doing it one day at a time, not listening to anything.
the photos | cotton's wrongful conviction | interviews |
faqs | re-evaluating procedures | song of an innocent man |
links | tapes & transcripts | reactions |
explore frontline | wgbh
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation