Sunday, May 17, 2009

Picking a Book in the Library

Her name was Jennifer. In 1984 she was a 22-year-old, white college student in the state of North Carolina, USA, and was brutally raped at knife point in her apartment by a black man at night. During the attack, she made a very concerted effort to pay attention to the facial features and anything she could remember of her attacker to bring to the police later on, hoping that she would survive. A few hours later, as she was sitting in the police department, it became clear to her that she had got a very good look at the man who raped her. And she hated that man with a vengeance and a blind hate.

Within a few days they had a suspect, the composite sketch went out in the newspapers and one name popped up: Ronald Cotton. Under photo identification, Jennifer was able to identify her attacker. Ronald was brought into a physical lineup a few days after that, and once again she picked him. Ronald stood trial in 1985, was found guilty and was given a life sentence plus fifty years.

Two years later, the appellate court overturned that decision, and again Ronald was tried. This time he was found guilty of raping another white woman too on the same day, and was sentenced to two life terms and 54 years. Ronald was never going to come out of prison.

In 1995, a DNA test was run that concluded that Ronald has never been Jennifer’s attacker. It was another man, already in prison, named Bobby. In fact, he too had been brought before Jennifer in 1987, and she completely did not recognize him. Bobby died a few years later after Ronald came out of prison after serving eleven years. Over 4,000 days Ronald was not with his family.

Ronald came out in 1995, and Jennifer was afraid of him. But then silently, she berated herself: “Eleven years! How do eleven years pass when you are locked up for a crime you didn’t commit? I couldn’t begin to imagine. For me they were eleven years measure in birthdays, first days of school, Christmas morning. Ronald and I were the same age, and he had none of those things because I picked him. He lost eleven years of time with his family, eleven years of falling in love, getting married, having kids…The guilt suffocated me.” Two years later she got the nerve to see him and ask him for forgiveness. She said, “If I spent every hour of every day for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn’t come close to how sorry I am. How I feel in my heart.”

And Ronald, without blinking, took her hands, cried, and said, “I forgive you. I’ve never hated you and I want you to be happy.” Since then Jennifer and Ronald are good friends. They have traveled together around the country, done many interviews and worked on this book together. Ronald Cotton is the friend of Jennifer who, in the meanwhile, was married and became the mother of triplets. Ronald too was married and had a daughter.

In a 300-page book entitled, Picking Cotton, published in 2009 in USA by St. Martin’s Press, Jennifer and Ronald, in collaboration with Erin Toreno, unfold the harrowing details of their tragedy, while demonstrating the profound nature of human grace and the healing power of forgiveness.

As sister Helen Prejean says: “This book will break your heart and then lift it up again. A touching and beautiful example of the power of faith and forgiveness.”

Barry C. Check of ‘The Innocence Project’ calls it “an extraordinary story about crime, punishment and exoneration; but it’s their shared spiritual journey towards reconciliation and forgiveness that is even more compelling and profound.”

And I, Mahendra Meghani, would only add that this is the first book that, in a long time, I have read from cover to cover, each page with eagerness. I had not heard of it at all, but fortunately I happened to pick it up from the new books displayed in South Brunswick Public Library near my daughter’s home. At times the story brought back memories of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables at times that of Jhaverchand Meghani’s Jail Office-ni Bari. I can only urge friends to pick up the book from their library.


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