Twice in July 1984, an assailant broke into an apartment, severed phone wires, sexually assaulted a woman, searched through her belongings, and took money and other items. On August 1, 1984, Ronald Cotton was arrested for these crimes. In January 1985, Cotton was convicted by a jury of one count of rape and one count of burglary. In a second trial, in November 1987, Cotton was convicted of both rapes and two counts of burglary. An Alamance County Superior Court sentenced Cotton to life plus fifty-four years.
The prosecutor's evidence at trial included a photo identification made by one of the victims, a police lineup identification made by one of the victims, a flashlight found in Cotton's home that resembled the one used by the assailant, and rubber from Cotton's tennis shoe that was consistent with rubber found at one of the crime scenes.
On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned the 1985 conviction because the second victim had picked another man out of the lineup and the trial court had not allowed this evidence to be heard by the jury. In November 1987, Cotton was retried, this time for both rapes because the second victim decided that Cotton was her assailant. Before the second trial, a man in prison, who had been convicted for similar crimes, told another inmate that he had committed the crimes for which Cotton had been convicted. A superior court judge refused to allow this information into evidence, and Cotton was convicted of both rapes. The next year, Cotton's appellate defender filed a brief but did not argue the failure to admit the second suspect’s confession, and the conviction was affirmed.
In 1994, the chief appellate defender requested that two new lawyers take over Cotton's defense. They filed a motion for appropriate relief on the grounds of inadequate appeal counsel. They also filed a motion for DNA testing that was granted in October 1994. In the spring of 1995, the Burlington Police Department turned over all evidence that contained the assailant’s semen for DNA testing.
The samples from one victim were too deteriorated to be conclusive, but the samples from the other victim's vaginal swab and underwear were subjected to PCR based DNA testing and showed no match to Cotton. At the defense's request, the results were sent to the State Bureau of Investigation’s DNA database, containing the DNA patterns of convicted violent felons in North Carolina prisons. The state's database showed a match with the convict who had earlier confessed to the crime.
When the DNA test results were reported in May 1995, the district attorney and the defense motioned to dismiss all charges. On June 30, 1995, Cotton was officially cleared of all charges and released from prison. In July 1995, the governor of North Carolina officially pardoned Cotton, making him eligible for $5,000 compensation from the state. Cotton had served 10.5 years of his sentence.
Arising from this case is the incredible story of Jennifer Thompson, the victim who had identified Cotton. An aspiring college student at the time of the crime, she made it her purpose to study the assailant’s face so that he would be brought to justice. She identified the wrong man. Today, Ms. Thompson speaks out about her experiences and the dangers of relying solely upon single eyewitness testimony to convict.