Q: What happened to you that night?
A: I had gone out with my boyfriend that night. We had gone out to eat, and I wasn't feeling well. So he took me home early, and I fell asleep. And about three o'clock in the morning I heard a noise, and I woke up thinking it might be him. And when I asked who was there, who was it, the person jumped on me and I was on my back. So he grabbed my arms and pinned them to the side of my head and put a knife to my throat. And I screamed and he told me that if I didn't shut up he would kill me. And I was trying to see the face thinking that maybe this was someone I knew, that this had to have been a joke someone was playing on me, and when I realized that it wasn't, I thought maybe this was someone who had broken into my home to rob me. And I told him that he could take anything he wanted, he could have my money, he could have my credit card, and he told me he didn't want my money. And when I asked what he wanted, he proceeded to take off my underwear and he went down and started performing oral sex on me. At that point I realized that I was going to be raped. And I knew that he was bigger than I was, I knew that he had been drinking, because I could smell it. I assumed that he was a criminal. I knew he was carrying a knife and that my odds of physically protecting myself were minimal.
And I didn't think that would be too terribly hard to do. Especially considering he had been drinking. So I started to ask him questions thinking that he would trip himself up and give me information that once I got away, I would be able to give it to the police and maybe he would give me his name or something like that. And, while he was doing what he was doing, I was able to know that he had been in my apartment for several minutes before he had jumped on me.
Q: Tell me about the idea of knowing you had to have a plan, and what that plan became.
A: My first plan was to try to get information, and to try to look at him so that if there was any type of mark or a tattoo or a scar that I would have a better idea of how to identify him.
My second plan was to just try to get out. And what I wanted to do was to try to get him out of the house and lock the doors and call for the police. So what I tried to do, and what eventually I did, was when he came up and he started to try to kiss me it, it enraged me and it made me so sick to my stomach that he just turned my head and he looked at me and he called me "baby" and I thought that this had to be my moment, and I looked at him, and I said, "You know, if you would put your knife outside of my apartment, and if you would drop it on my car hood," which was down a flight of steps, "then [I] would feel so much more at ease." And he fell for that. And he got off of me. And I was able to grab a blanket. And he told me, "No, don't put that on." And I said, "Well, I'm cold." And I said, "You know, if you'll go through the front door and drop the knife, I'll be all right." And I thought that would give me time to run to the door and lock it and then call for help. But what ended up happening was he told me to go in the bathroom and shut the door. And I tried to find every avenue of light that I could to just catch another glimpse of him, but he didn't go outside of my apartment. He just dropped it outside my door and he came right back in. And so I had to go think, "Now what am I going to do?"
So, when he grabbed my arm to pull me back into the bedroom, I said, "I'm really thirsty. I need to get something to drink." Which was in my kitchen at the back door. And when I went into the kitchen, I realize that's where he had come in, because the door was open. And I immediately turned the kitchen light on, knowing that if I had a light on, he probably would not come too close to me, for reasons of identification, and he didn't. He stayed around the corner. And I started to run the water and throw ice cubes in my sink, and open up cabinets and draws, making as much noise as I could, and getting up enough courage to run. And that's when I opened up the door and I just took off out the door. I didn't know where I was going to go, but I was leaving.
Q: Tell me everything that was going on while he was there.
A: Well, it was very strange for me because he kept telling me things. He had gone through my wallet while I was sleeping and he had been drinking my beers. He had been smoking cigarettes in my apartment, and he was stealing my money. He was going through my cabinets. And so by the time the rape actually occurred, he knew my name was Jennifer. He knew I was from Winston-Salem. He made a reference to the fact that in Salem they burn witches. He knew I wore glasses. He had made reference to my boyfriend being in Germany, which was actually my brother who had sent me postcards. So he had been reading my postcards. So I felt completely invaded. I mean, I felt sexually invaded, I felt spiritually invaded, I felt he had robbed me. He had gone through private articles of mine. He completely violated me in every way a person can be violated, I was violated.
Q: What was your sense of fear, and what was your sense of determination at the same time?
A: Once I realized that if I could try to escape or get out of the situation, there was some sort of control that, even if it was a small amount, I felt like I took back and I think your survival instinct takes over, and the only thing I knew that I was going to get out. And once I got out, I was going to make sure that he paid for the crime. It was really important to me. I wasn't going to be another one of these women who just said, "I got raped and I'm going to hide away." I wanted to make sure that who did this to me paid for the crime.
Q: And tell me all the things you did to try to make sure that you could see him again.
A: I was trying to see as much of him as I could to see--if there was any tattoos or any scars or unusual jewelry or a part in the hair, anything that I could use for information to identify him. And so once my eyes became adjusted to the darkness, I was able to use light sources such as coming through my blinds and my bedroom window, a night light that I had. At one point he bent down and turned on my stereo and a blue light came off of the stereo and it shined right up to his face. And I was able to look at that. When I went into the bathroom I [turned] the light on, and he immediately told me to shut it off, and again in the kitchen, I was able to turn that light on and there were lights coming off from the back of my apartment. So there were really several sources of light that I used and tried to maneuver him in different positions to where I could use that light. I also made sure I stood near him when I got up, knowing that I'm five foot one, so to assess how tall he was, how big he was. Noticing his clothes, just anything that I could to use.
Q: What possessed you to have the wits to do all this?
A: I had always heard that when you were raped, the best thing to do was not to fight. That is something that the rapist actually wants is that control and that degradation of a woman. And so I refused to play into that. I used the only thing I knew that I had over him, which was intelligence. And I knew that if I could keep enough wits about me, I could outsmart him, and I did.
Q: Tell me what happened when you got to the hospital.
A: When I first arrived at the hospital, it was about four o'clock in the morning. And I had no idea that there was an entire kit they have to perform on you, and take all kinds of samples and evidence, and that kind of thing off of your body. And when the doctor came in, of course, he was called in, he was very agitated that he had been sound asleep, and here a phone call had come in, and he had to do this rape identification kit on this girl. And he never actually told me he was aggravated, but he was very subtly nasty. I mean, he just was very unsympathetic. And he then proceeded to do the rape kit as far as I understood it to be. And that's when I learned there had been a second victim. Mike Gauldin came in, and that's when I first met him, and he talked to me and I heard a woman crying a few stalls down from me, and I remember looking and saying, "Did she get raped also?" And he said, "Yes, and we think it was the same person." And that was a horrible feeling. That he had hurt two women in one night and I can remember just feeling so, so sorry for her, because I knew just how much pain I was feeling, and I could only assume she was feeling the same amount.
After the rape kit, I went to the police station. And I was asked to do the police sketch and just sit down and try to piece together the noses and the ears and the eyes and I was asked to, of course, recount the night several times and to give as many statements as I could. And the whole time, I remember I was wearing someone else's clothes, someone else's underwear. I hadn't showered. I just felt so disgusting. I felt so dirty. I felt cold. I felt like all the blood had just drained out of me. I'm tired.
And then we got a phone call from another detective asking if a portion of the rape kit had been performed on me. And Mike Gauldin was the detective who was interviewing me and when he asked me if I had received a penicillin shot, had I received the morning after pill, and when I told him that I hadn't, then they realized that about half of the rape kit had not been performed. I think there's 11 or 12 pieces that had to be done. And then I had to leave and be taken down to another hospital and have the same thing done again. The whole rape kit just redone. It was just mind boggling. I can remember thinking that the day was never going to end. Wondering, of course, if the second hospital had done it right too.
Q: And what were you feeling at that point?
A: I wanted to be done but at the same time I wanted to give as much information that I could. I did not want to go home. I wanted to go anywhere but home. That was one of the hardest things was to go home. I just wanted to go somewhere and be alone and cry. I hadn't really had time to just fall apart. I needed to fall apart. I was trying to keep my composure, to try and keep my memory straight, at the same time, I didn't want to keep my composure. I wanted to lose my mind.
Q: Tell me about coming back and Mike coming back and finally the day ending.
A: When we went back to my apartment, we went back to look for evidence. We went back to look for the knife, which we never could find. We searched for any type of small pieces of clothing or anything that he might have left, and we found a piece of foam rubber that looks like it came out of the inside of a sneaker. I remember thinking that he had been wearing canvas-type sneakers that night so of course that became a really ... it had not been there ... I am a very meticulous housekeeper and I would never have walked past something like that laying on my floor. So I knew that it had to have come from him that night. I noticed that some of my articles in my home and my apartment were gone. That liquor bottles were out. He had been drinking the liquor ... just anything that might have been changed or moved. I noticed at that point that he had gone through my pocketbook. That there were cigarette butts in my ashtray. That change had been knocked out. Postcards had been undone. So that's when I realized, up until that point I didn't know a lot of the things why he had said them to me. Well, once I went back to the apartment I was able to understand what had happened prior to the rape. That he had been sitting in my apartment. Drinking and going through my things.
Q: Can you summarize that day from hell?
A: I think from the moment I left the apartment, going to someone's home who I had no idea who they were and having to tell them I had been raped, not knowing whether they would let me in or not. Going to a hospital where a doctor is annoyed that he has been aroused in the middle of the night to come in and examine me. To go into a police station, which I had never been into in my life. Going back to another hospital and having another rape kit performed on me. Then having to go back to the scene of the crime, which was very difficult, and seeing my underwear, seeing the bed, and seeing the places where he had pryed open my door. Things that he had violated my privacy and then knowing that I could never return back to there. That this was no longer my home. I could never sleep here. I could never cook in this kitchen. That part of my life was over. I had to find another place to live. I didn't have a week or two weeks. I had two hours to find a new place to live. I didn't have a roommate. I knew I had to live alone and the thought of living alone scared me.
I mean, it frightened me, it petrified me just knowing that I had to face my family. That I had [to face] society ... It was so fatiguing. I mean, I wasn't tired, I wasn't exhausted. I was just fatigued. Emotionally, mentally and physically fatigued.
Q: Years later, what did you expect the new DNA evidence to show?
A: I expected the DNA to show that Ronald Cotton had been the rapist. That he had raped me and Elizabeth. And I never thought anything else. I never thought any different.
Q: Had you ever had any questions in your mind?
Q: Talk about that.
A: When I first saw the photo of him and I saw the pictures of the men that were in front of me. Ronald Cotton--he just looked exactly like the man who raped me. And not a lot of time had elapsed between the crime and me looking at the pictures, so my memory was still very fresh. And then when I saw him in the physical line up and I was actually able to see him as a person and his demeanor and his postures--it just further convinced me that Ronald Cotton was the man. He looked exactly like the man. He looked like the sketch that I had given to the police. His mannerisms, his voice, his height, his weight--it all just added up in my mind. And as the evidence started to come in, it was almost just conclusive to me that this had been the rapist. And so as time goes on, I think that my mind would always see Ronald Cotton.
When I would have a nightmare, when I would re-live the night in my head, Ronald Cotton's head, his face was right there for me to see for years. So there was never any reason for me to doubt it. He never told us where he was that night. The story he gave us was a lie. If I was up for a crime I had not committed and I was facing life in prison, it wouldn't matter what I did that night. I wouldn't care how immoral it was, if I could somehow get out of this crime that I am wrongly being convicted of I would tell you, but he never did. So there were all these things that just further convinced me through both of the trials that this was the man.
Q: And how do you think now?
A: I don't know. The DNA tests, the science tells me that we had the wrong guy. It was Bobby Poole. Ronald Cotton says it is not him, it was Bobby Poole. They do look very similar, it is almost frightening how similar they look to each other. I still have a lot of questions as to where did all this evidence come from? And how does it fit and why can't we explain it? I don't know. I really don't know. I have to accept the answer that has been given to me and put faith in our system. I just wish I had some answers to the questions that have never been answered. I think a lot of people would like to have the answers to those questions.
Q: And when you think of the rapist, who do you see?
A: I still see Ronald Cotton. And I am not saying that to point a finger. I am just saying that is who I see. And I would love to erase that face out of my mind. I would do anything to erase that face out of my mind, but I can't. It is just in my head. Sometimes it is more fuzzy than others because my mind now says "Well, it's Bobby Poole," but it is still the face I see.
Q: When the news of this broke about Ronald Cotton being freed, where were you?
A: The night he was freed I was at my home. I was told that it would be on the news and so I turned it on and watched it. I was in the den. It was right before dinner time. And that was the first time I had actually seen him since 1987. And of course, seeing his family around him and that he was so happy and I remember feeling frightened. I remember feeling sick, but also I remember feeling just an overwhelming sense of just guilt that if indeed we had made a mistake and I had contributed to taking away 11 years of this man's life, and if indeed we had been wrong--I felt so bad. I fell apart. I cried and cried and I wept and I was angry at me and I beat myself up for it for a long time.
Q: Talk about watching the program Larry King Live and what was going through your mind.
A: I was real nervous that Elizabeth (the other rape victim of Bobby Poole) and I would be shown in a light that was not correct. That somehow we had been irrational. We were quick to judge. We had been racially motivated, or any of those things because none of those things had been true. I was afraid that the law enforcement officials would be shown in a light that was not correct. I have a great deal of respect for a lot of them and I know how some talk shows can be. And so I was very much sitting on pins and needles watching it, not sure if they would say something about the victim, and lead to avenues that people could assume or surmise certain things that were completely inaccurate. But they didn't and I was very pleased.
But all of a sudden, me as a victim who suffered a horrific crime, a crime that a lot of people can't understand, all of a sudden we are almost like thrown away and the victim then becomes the man who has been released out of prison and all of a sudden, his victimization is just, it's hailed and everyone feels sorry for him and it is just, it's terrible. We took away years of his life, which I am not trying to deny any of those things, but the same amount of years have been taken away from me. His bars were made of metal. My bars are emotional. My bars, I can't ever break them free. No one is ever going to give me any restitution. No one is ever going to hail me as someone who has survived 11 years of imprisonment. You can't see my bars, you can't see my prison, but they are there and I have to be a person who walks through the neighborhood and to the grocery store and have a different persona that people see as opposed to the part that still sometimes feels a lot of pain. And the part that still has nightmares, the part that can't go outside of my home two feet to throw my garbage away in the dark. The part of me that at night when I am alone, I can shake so bad that my bed will shake. I mean my bed actually shakes still, 12 years later. That is how frightened I still am. That is how a part of me that was ripped away and I can't ever have back. I mean, he gets restitution. I got nothing. And I am not asking for anything, but the tables turn.
Q: You said something that was interesting. That you didn't feel what you think a lot of women feel--which is guilt and sense of self demeaning ...
A: I think a lot of women when they are raped see themselves as maybe a guilty party. That society has put so much emphasis on what you were wearing that night, what your personal life had been like. That we as women are somehow feeling like we have asked for it. That somehow we caused this to happen. And we feel dirty, we feel bad. We feel just almost like whorish. I never felt that way. I knew that this was a crime against women. It wasn't so much against me. That I had done nothing to ask for this. That this man picked me out of a random pot and I was his victim that night. So I never felt any of the guilt that a lot of women feel.
You see ... the night that I was raped, I was sleeping in my bed. I had my doors locked, I had my windows closed. I did all of the private things that I was supposed to do. It was three o'clock in the morning. I had not been out bar hopping. I had not been out with a bunch of boys or a bunch of girls. I hadn't been drinking. I had done none of those things. I was sleeping all by myself and a man broke into my home and raped me.
So I never attached any guilt. I never attached any bad feelings onto myself that I think a lot of women do. I think if you had been out at a bar, people might look at you and say, "Oh, well you shouldn't have been at that bar. Were you drinking?" "Well I had a couple of beers." "Well, you shouldn't have been drinking. What were you wearing?" "I was wearing a black skirt." "Well see, you shouldn't have been wearing a black skirt." And I didn't have any of those things. Not that any of those things should even play into it but they do. People do that and people assume.
Q: You talked about the fact that the rape comes up for you sometimes. What makes you think about it?
A: Usually what triggers my memories is issues involving rape. Like a movie that has a rape scene in it. Someone might share a story with me and it has a sexually violent nature to it. Usually any type of scene or story that I hear that has something that is demeaning to women will trigger it. Particularly things involving rape. I had a very hard time watching movies that has that in it. It just puts me in a very awful mood--for days. I will cry and ...
Q: It happened a long time ago. Does it ever go away?
A: No. No, it becomes just a part of your person as if anything, any type of huge change in your life. It changes you and I am a different person than I was 12 years ago. And it will never go away. You learn to live around it. You learn to make it so that it's not maybe something that causes you to go in a negative direction. You try to take it and use it to go in a positive direction but it never goes away. No.
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