In 1984, I was raped at knifepoint in my home in North Carolina. I did not know whether I would live or die that night. Throughout the course of the rape, I struggled to look into the face of the person who was destroying my life. His hair, his skin. Scars, tattoos, piercings. His voice, his age, weight and height – all information the police would need.
I survived and was able to help the police identify Ronald Cotton, who was convicted and sentenced to life plus fifty years. It was an amazing moment for me. It was the criminal justice system at its best. Ronald Cotton would never touch his mother again. Never find love and get married. I hated him with a blind hate. I prayed daily to my God to please have Ronald Cotton killed in prison but before he dies, to let him know the incredible fear of being raped. To have your soul and spirit taken from you and crushed before your eyes. This all but consumed me.
As the years went by, my life took on a steadiness. I graduated college, fell in love, got married and gave birth to triplets in the spring of 1990. Life was good. But in 1995, Ronald Cotton requested a DNA test. And the results proved he was innocent.
The shame was oppressive. The guilt was heavy. I was afraid of revenge, retaliation, vengeance. A full two years of intense suffering later, I met with Ronald Cotton to ask for forgiveness. Without hesitation he gracefully forgave me. He gave me healing that night. He taught me I should not allow that one horrible act to control my life.
Three years later, in the year 2000, I was invited to speak at a press conference on behalf of a man who was to be executed by the state of Texas. His lawyers said he was innocent.
My immediate response to the request was, “No, of course I cannot come. I support the death penalty. I believe that if you take a life then you should be prepared to give up your own. We do not execute our fellow citizens unless we know without a doubt that they are guilty. After all, this is America.”
I was assured that I was entitled to my opinion and all that was needed from me was to tell my story. But as I read more about the case, I was struck at the holes in some of the eyewitness evidence. I began to wonder – how many other cases might involve human error, as mine did? I arrived at the event and I met twelve others there, men and women, black and white. They had all been wrongfully convicted.
Some say that the proper procedures can reduce the risk of executing an innocent person to an acceptable level. But what is acceptable? I cannot look at any one of the exonerees I met that day and support the death penalty – I just can’t. Their lives are too valuable.
I have thought about this issue more than most. I could have been murdered that night that I was raped. Here is what I have concluded. I believe – as I have always believed – we should reserve no sympathy for killers. None. They choose to kill and should be held responsible for their choice. But this I know is true – you can reduce, but you cannot eliminate, the risk of error in the death penalty system. No set of procedures can completely guard against human error. Believe me, I was certain that Ronald Cotton was the man who raped me – certain.
We are not perfect. We are human. We make mistakes and some of us even act with malice. To deny that would be criminal. And to gamble with someone’s life in the face of that knowledge – even more so.
“We are not perfect. We are human. We make mistakes and some of us even act with malice. To deny that would be criminal. And to gamble with someone’s life in the face of that knowledge – even more so.”