News of folks exonerated by DNA evidence is by now commonplace, so another book on the topic needs to do more than reveal the twists and turns of a life redeemed by good lawyering and good science. Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, delivers, sort of.
This is a team written book. The two protagonists, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, needed help putting their drama into words. They selected a young writer named Erin Torneo. The result is a book in which everyone manages to sound the same. That would be fatal in a piece of fiction. But as this book recounts sorrowful and hopeful facts, the fault can be forgiven. But reader beware: This is a long, long way from Truman Capote.
Ms. Thompson-Cannino was sexually assaulted at knife point while in college. As the assailant lingered, she made her best efforts to commit to memory her attacker's features. If she survived the ordeal, she wanted to be a good witness. And so she was. She first worked with sketch artists to compile a composite picture; then she identified Mr. Cotton in a lineup. First one trial, and then another, led to the conviction of Mr. Cotton, who was sentenced to life plus. She was certain he was the rapist. Dead certain.
But Mr. Cotton was innocent, or so he kept telling his lawyers. Some lawyers were more responsive than others, and if for no other reason than to see how our incarcerated clients percieve us, I recommend this book to practicing criminal defense lawyers. I know I am guilty of so focusing on the issues that I forget about the client. Mr. Cotton lavishes praise on the men who sent him detailed updates from time to time.
In the end, DNA and a confession by another exonerated Mr. Cotton, and he was set free after serving 11 years. Important as this part of the story is, it is merely the prelude to what is truly extraordinary about Ms. Thompson-Cannino and Mr. Cotton. You see, they became fast friends. Mr. Cotton found it far easier to forgive Ms. Thompson-Cannino for her false identification that she found it to forgive herself. His model of grace inspired her, and, in effect, redeemed her from a lifetime of bitterness.
There is a morality play buried not so far beneath the surface. Mr. Thompson-Cannino is offered the gift of grace by a man she horribly wronged. She accepts the gift and blossoms into a lovely and giving human being. When she tries to give this gift to the man who, in fact, assaulted her, he refuses to accept it, dying a silent death of cancer behind bars.
I wish a better writer had sought to help the protagonists to tell this tale. There is epic power in their story, but Picking Cotton, for all its fine points, reads as though it were written for USA Today. I want to know more about these people. This book scarecly scratched the surface.