In an attempt to talk about anything other than my current FringeNYC show (don’t get me wrong, I’m loving the experience, even the crying strangers hugging me afterwards) I am going to write about something completely different. Well, thematically it’s in the same family of my previous posts- the human condition, hope and all the stuff.
I saw a story on 60 Minutes a few months ago that has stayed with me. I know I am probably not the normal demographic and laugh if you want but sometimes on a Sunday night I watch it. Here’s the short version. A woman named Jennifer Thompson was raped in 1984 at age 22 and was able to identify her attacker and send him to jail. The problem came a few years later when her accused rapist Ronald Cotton (who always professed his innocence) found himself in the same prison as a man named Bobby Poole. It turns out that they resembled each other physically, enough so that prison guards and inmates confused the two, and were from the same area. If you’ve guessed that Bobby Poole was actually the man who raped Jennifer Thompson, then you are correct. And he even confessed it to others.
Now while this type of situation is not rare, unfortunately, that’s not what struck me about this story. To finish up the legal part: Ronald Cotton learns about DNA testing from the OJ Simpson trial coverage and eventually the DNA from Jennifer’s rape kit is verified as that of Bobby Poole. So 11 years after being convicted, Ronald Cotton is a free man. Here’s where you might need tissues. Jennifer Thompson is haunted by her false accusation so she asks to meet Ronald. They meet and, this kills me, he forgives her. She says that she is sorry, that if she spent every minute of every day telling him how sorry she was, it wouldn’t come close to what her heart feels. He looks at her, holds her hands, and tells her that he forgives her. In one moment, this man who lost 11 years of his life for a crime he didn’t commit absolves his accuser. Instead of anger and hatred, he gives mercy and even perhaps love. How is that possible? How can he rise above it and simply embrace her?
Jennifer Thompson has turned this horrific situation into a life mission. She now travels the country, having started in her own state of North Carolina, and talks to prosecutors, police and defense attorneys about her story. She is a driving force to mandate reforms, to show victims lineup photos one at a time while emphasizing that the right answer may be none of the above, having lineups conducted by a person who doesn’t know who the suspect is, or not by a person at all.
And Ronald Cotton often joins her on the campaign. They have forged a friendship. This is amazing to me. His ability to simply let the past be the past. I only hope to carry in my heart a fraction of the compassion and forgiveness he possesses. And in terms of Jennifer Thompson, I am so amazed that she found the strength to reach out to Ronald and also a way to forgive herself. That she didn’t crumble and live out her life in shame and self-doubt. That out of such destructive circumstances, a rape and a wrongful incarceration, these two people have not only come together, survived, but thrived. They live lives with spouses and children, trying to protect others from a similar fate.
I admire them both. More than I can express. And wish them peaceful nights and long, happy lives. May I one day have the chance to see someone else so clearly that I can place his or her contentment ahead of my own ego. I am so sorry that she was raped and so sorry that he was in jail, but for them to find lives beyond that (and lives that include each other) gives me hope that we are able to find our way through even the most challenging circumstances, that we are perhaps capable of greatness.
Dream Role: Catherine in Proof by David Auburn