Picking Cotton

Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo

St. Martin's Press

Prologue

September 2006

Ronald Cotton stands a few rows behind Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, watching as she cranes her head through the crowd, looking for him among the faces of the parents who have come out to watch their children play soccer. All of the fields at Northeast Park in Gibsonville, North Carolina, are occupied on this bright autumn afternoon: It’s tournament day, with a parking lot crammed full of yellow school buses, SUVs, and station wagons to prove it.

"Where are you?" she says into her cell phone, unable to find him.

"I’m right here," Ron says, enjoying the joke. Then he reaches out and touches Jennifer’s arm, causing her to turn and jump. "It’s so good to see you," she says, laughing and moving close to embrace him. "You’d think I would’ve spotted you!" Wearing a blue baseball hat, Ron at six foot four towers over her. He’s got to lean waay down to hug Jennifer, a tiny blonde with bobbed hair. The sun catches the sterling medallion he always wears around his neck: an eagle in flight.

Ron immediately gets into the game. "C’mon! Don’t let ’em take that ball!" he shouts, clapping his hands.

Beside him, Raven, his nine- year- old daughter in neat braids he helped do that morning, shoots him a look. "Daddy!"

"What? Am I embarrassing you?" She nods, which only makes Ron yell louder. "Let’s go!"

He is cheering on Jennifer’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Brittany, who plays center-midfield, the link between offense and defense. Her brown ponytail bopping behind her, she keeps her cleats close to the ball, switch- backing across the field to try to keep it away from the other side until she’s got a clear path to pass it to her fellow players. When she sees her opening, Brittany makes a strong, sure kick and sends the ball to her teammate, who takes off for the goal. The crowd yells for the black and white ball to make it into the net as if nothing could matter more.

The Reds, Brittany’s team, win the first game of the tournament, and then they break for lunch. Brittany, spotting Ron and Raven with her mom, jogs over and hugs them both, happy they are there. The four of them head over with the other parents to the park’s pavilion. With his Burger King bags picked up from the drive- in, Ron isn’t part of the usual soccer parent crowd: moms like Jennifer who unpack neatly prepared sandwiches and snacks from Tupperware and coolers. After the kids eat, Brittany heads off to the grass to show Raven how to kick straight and dribble, while Jennifer and Ron catch up. One nosy mom can’t resist and comes over to say hello.

"Jennifer, Brittany was just great today!" she says. "Too bad your husband missed it. Where is he?" "He’s with my son, doing ‘guy stuff,’ but they should be here any minute," says Jennifer.

The mother’s eyes dart over to Ron and back to Jennifer. She can’t figure it out. "So how do y’all know each other?" the mom says, motioning to Ron.

Jennifer and Ron look at each other, smiling. They let the moment settle between them, hanging in the air like the sweet green smell of freshly cut grass, ready for hordes of high school girls to trample it.

"We go way back," Ron says, in his characteristic way of understating things.

What they don’t say is that twenty- two years ago, Jennifer sat in a jail house just five miles down the interstate, looked at seven black men standing in front of her, and picked Ronald Cotton as the man who had brutally raped her eleven days before.

Excerpted from Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson- Cannino.

Copyright © 2009 by Jennifer Thompson- Cannino.

Published in March 2009 by St. Martin's Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.