Jennifer Thompson

Q: Describe the photo lineup, and what Mike Gauldin came to you and asked you to do with the photo.

JENNIFER: I was asked to go down to the police station and look at some photos of men who had committed similar types of crime, and they, of course, since my description had been a black male in his twenties, then that's who I needed to look at, and I believe I had six or seven or eight pictures to look at. That was very difficult. There were certain ones that I could discount automatically, but when I looked at Ronald Cotton's pictures a lot of the fear came back into my head because this had been soon after the crime had been committed.

Q: What kind of instructions did they give to you?

JENNIFER: I really wasn't given much instruction because they don't want to lead the witness, and I was simply told that these are men who fit the description that I had given to them and I was to look at them carefully. He may be here and he may not be here, and that was a real important thing that they had to say to me because they couldn't look at me and say, "He's in here. He's one of these guys." So he may, he may not be in here, take your time, think through it, and then I chose the photo of Ronald Cotton.

Q: And then there was a physical lineup.

JENNIFER: Well a couple of days later I was called, I was up in the mountains and I came back to do a physical lineup, and I had just assumed that this would be one of those glass windows and he didn't see me, but I could see him, and they would turn to the right and turn to the left, and when I came into the police station they warned me that this was not your typical physical lineup, that I would be in a room with these men and they could see me and I could see them. The only thing that would be dividing me between he and me would be a table, and that was sickening. I can remember feeling enormously just sick to my stomach, wanting to throw up, frightened, anxious, I mean my body was shaking, my head would hurt, and I went in there and looked at him and he looked at me and, of course, I looked at all of the men, and they had to do the steps to the right, to the left and then turn around and then they were instructed to do a voice presentation to me. They had to say some of the lines that the rapist had said to me that night so I could hear the voice because the voice was a very distinct voice. He had talked to me a lot during the crime, and I felt like if I could hear the voice that would help me to decide.

Q: [Detective] Mike Gauldin told us that you were between two people.

JENNIFER: I think any time when you have two people standing close together and they're the same height and they're the same body building, and maybe their hair is ... one of the things I remember was Ronald Cotton's hair was different than the photo that I had seen, which was also different from the man who had raped me. Ronald Cotton had poofed his hair out and made it more of an Afro look, so it did throw me. He wore brown which ... the man that night had worn blue, and so those type of things to your mind's eye can be very confusing, particularly when you're frightened and you're tired.

Q: Tell me about what happened--your decision and your identification.

JENNIFER: I think my decision to a large degree was ... Ronald Cotton had a really distinct nose and the rapist's face was not very far from mine and his nose looked closer to what I had remembered that night and there was an attitude about him that was very, almost arrogant and smug, and that played a big role in my decision.

Q: And then during those weeks you were working with the police, working with Mike Gauldin--what was your role?

JENNIFER: My role was verifying a lot of things. If this was actually the way it happened; do I remember this being in a certain spot; do I remember him. Were the stripes on his sleeves going this, were they going that way and all these things where they had many pieces of evidence, and I needed to say, "No the stripes would go this way," and they would say, "OK, we've got the shirts." I just played basically a witness's role, an eye-witness's role, that was my biggest role in the case.

Q: Did you feel like the police were working with you and for you? I mean did you form some sort bond?

JENNIFER: In my case, the law enforcement's were ... well, they went above and beyond the call of duty. They were always respectful of me. They were always considerate of my feelings, my time and so together, I think because they had a respect for me, I grew to have a great deal of respect for them, and we did, we formed a very close relationship.

There was definitely a bond there between me and the detectives who were working on the case, and our primary concern and our primary goal was to put the person behind bars who had committed the crime so that he would never do this again. That was the goal. I mean there was no other goal.


Q: Testifying--what kind of pressure were you feeling?

JENNIFER: The pressure I felt was I think to set a standard maybe for some women. I felt a lot of pressure because I knew that the second victim was not capable of being an eyewitness, and so I felt to some degree that my trial was her trial and that somehow if there could be a conviction on my part, that she would also win, too.

I knew that my eyewitness testimony was going to be a lot of what the jury was going to take in, and a lot of their decision would be based on my strength as an eyewitness, and so I knew I had to be strong and focused and very conscientious about what I was doing. At the same time, I was a human being, and there were moments that I knew I'd fall apart, and I did.

Q: As you sat and watched Ron Cotton in the court, what did you notice about his actions?

JENNIFER: I think that if I was on trial for a crime that I did not commit and I knew I didn't commit it, I would have done everything in my power to bring forth evidence [to] prove I didn't commit it, and I would want to convey to that jury that, "Look I'm an innocent person, they've just got the wrong person." I would fall on my knees, I would cry, I would do anything that I could possibly do, and yet his composure was very unusual. He would slouch in his chair, he would smile, he would smirk, he would yawn. It was just different from what I would have done. I think even if I had been guilty, I think I still would have been screaming at the top of my lungs.

Yet, it didn't seem like he had a problem with this. I mean, even when they sentenced him and they said, "You've been sentenced to life in prison," he just walked out really composed, and that in your mind ... I mean you say to yourself, "This guy has got to be just the guiltiest person in the world. He doesn't care."

Q: Did you in your mind feel that you were identifying the right man? Did you have questions in your mind at the time ?

JENNIFER: I don't think I ever really had a question in my mind as to guilt or innocence of Ronald Cotton. I was convinced that this was the person and we were doing the right thing. My nature is one that it is ... I'm very strong willed and I've been stubborn since I was born. I am very focused and when I have to do something, I do it all the way 150% and I usually don't veer too far from that path, so I think once my mind had made up that decision that this was the person, then that was it. I was locked into that.

Q: Did you think it was fair to keep the second victim's identity out of the first trial? And her identification?

JENNIFER: I don't know that I thought whether it was fair or not. I think you think to yourself, which is going to be the most helpful for your case, and I think what I was thinking and what everyone else was thinking was that in order to help my case, in order to reach a conviction without too much speculation in bringing other things in, it would have destroyed my case. We had to do that. I don't think that the other victim even wanted to be involved. I think that was also one of the decisions was she and I were natured differently. She wanted it to just go away, I wasn't willing to let it go away.

Q: In that first trial of Ronald Cotton when the verdict was read, what did you feel?

JENNIFER: When the verdict was read during the trial, and the jury had decided that he was guilty and the sentencing took place, I felt an enormous sense of relief that this was a part of my life that was finished, it was done, I was young, I was going to move on and complete the goals I had originally set for my life without knowing that in two years we would be back.

Q: Can you explain more about the composite sketch that was made. How was that done?

JENNIFER: When you go into the police station and you have to do an artist sketch, in my case there was a man sitting there and there's literally pages of noses, and there is pages of eyes and eyebrows and there's lips and there's ears and there's parts of the hair and there's skin color and there's facial hair, there's eyelashes, there's moles, there's just all kinds of ways to set up the face. What they would do is they would put a nose and then you would look at it and say, "Nope, that's not the nose, it's more round, the nostrils flare more." The same thing with the lips, "They're thinner, they're fatter, their eyebrows are thicker," and it can get very confusing because all of a sudden you've seen twenty noses and you're not really positive how the nostrils were. I mean your mind is a really unusual tool and it can play a lot of strange games with you, so it was very difficult to ...

Q: At the photo lineup do they tell you, "Yes, you picked the suspect."

JENNIFER: At the photo lineup when I picked out the photo ... after I picked it out they looked at me and they said, "We thought this might be the one," because he had a prior conviction. It was the same type of circumstances sort of. When I picked him out in the physical lineup and I walked out of the room, they looked at me and said, "That's the same guy," I mean, "That's the one you picked out in the photo." For me that was a huge amount of relief not that I'd picked the photo, but that I was sure when I looked at the photo, that was him, and when I looked at the physical lineup, I was sure it was him, and again as a credible witness, I'd had the two to go together or the court would just tear you up alive.

Q: You were the heart and soul of this case. Tell me what pressure that puts you under.

JENNIFER: Well, I knew that being the one and only eyewitness who could actually identify him was an enormous amount of pressure for me, being young and pretty much inexperienced in courtroom procedures, I didn't know what to anticipate. I knew that to a large degree the outcome of the case was contingent upon me and how I conveyed myself to twelve people sitting in the jury seats, and a judge who I'd never met before. It was very enormous.

Q: The second trial. Tell me what you thought of it.

JENNIFER: In our second trial in 1987, the defense attorney brought in a man named Bobby Poole who was also a convicted rapist, and there had been hearsay, rumors that he had said to Ronald Cotton while they were both serving time in the same place that, "Hey, I'm the one that committed these rapes and here you are serving time for it." That was brought forth in the court. The defense attorney brought in Bobby Poole and actually brought in two other guys who were at the same penitentiary that said, "Yes, we overheard this conversation," and at that time I remember sitting and listening to it and thinking to myself, "Wel,l this is pretty typical. I mean this is pretty standard. From what I understand nobody's ever committed a crime. Nobody's ever been guilty. I mean everybody in jail is an innocent man, so this is just another ploy. This is just a tactic that the defense attorneys want to use, and it'll never wash."

Q The jury never saw Bobby Poole, but you did, and looking at him and Ronald Cotton, what were you sitting in court thinking?

JENNIFER: When Bobby Poole was brought in, the jury was asked to leave. But I stayed, as well as the rest of the people in the courtroom, and I can remember looking at him and looking at Ronald Cotton and both thinking, "Gosh, I mean they're just ... they're such rotten people and you're both here in front of me." But I never remember looking at Bobby Poole thinking, "I've got the wrong person. I mean I've made this huge mistake. Now I remember." That never entered my head, it just didn't. I thought this is just a game, this is just a game they're playing, and looking over at Ronald Cotton, I never saw him change his demeanor, so I was never compelled to think, "Oh my gosh, what a mistake we've made."

Q: Tell me what happened at the end of the second trial?

JENNIFER: At the end of the second trial in 1987 when Ronald Cotton received his conviction of guilty and his sentencing, he was asked was there anything he would like to say, and I remember the first time he had never said anything and so I was pretty surprised that he would want to say anything at the second trial, but he did. And he stood up and he looked at the jury and he looked at me and he looked at Elizabeth and said, "I'm sorry this has happened to you women, I didn't do this but while I was in prison serving time, I was saved by God and I have written a song and I would like to sing it," and he proceeded to sing a song that he had written, which basically said that he had lived a life that was anything but clean, that he had committed crimes, he had done wrong things to people and he had found Jesus. Jesus had entered his life. God had saved him and he was willing to serve time for this particular crime that he had not committed because in the end he felt like he would be redeemed.

When the song was over, I remember there was an immense amount of anger that I felt towards him that how dare you try to receive sympathy from people in this courtroom when you've done this horrible crime. At the same time, I felt like if you had been saved, if Jesus had really entered your life, if you are going to be redeemed then I hope so for you, but there was such a mixed feeling that it was sickening, it was nauseating, I wanted to just throw up. I wanted to cry. I can remember my face feeling hot, my heart racing--that's one of the moments that I lost it.

Q: When he was sentenced and he got a big sentence--tell me what that meant to you and whether there was at least satisfaction in that.

JENNIFER: When he was originally convicted and sentenced to life plus so many years and the second time he was sentenced to two life sentences plus so many years, I wondered in my mind is a life sentence actually a life sentenced. I mean do you actually die in prison or is a life sentence just whatever the court deems is long enough and then you're let go.

Either way I felt like by the time he got out of jail, he would be too old to do anything wrong to anybody else ever again. So there was a sense of satisfaction. There was also a sense of, "Phew! Maybe I'm safe and four other women in the world are safe and isn't that good?"

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