Sheehan

DNA adds to agony

STAFF WRITERSeptember 15, 2009 

When Joseph Abbitt was exonerated a week and a half ago, cleared by DNA evidence in the rape of two teenage girls 14 years ago, the list of victims in the tragic case was long.

Most obvious, of course, was Abbitt, the Winston-Salem man who had served more than a dozen years for crimes he did not commit.

But what about the girls, the sisters whose eyewitness testimony put Abbitt behind bars? The girls' names have been removed from court records. Now in their late 20s, they were not at recent court hearings. But it is safe to say that, wherever they live, whatever their lives have become, they followed the results with anguish.

Jennifer Thompson-Camino knows what they are going through.

Like the girls, Thompson-Cannino was raped as a young woman, a college student in Alamance County. Like them, she identified her attacker from a lineup. Like them, she provided key eyewitness testimony.

Like them, she learned more than a dozen years later that the man who she had been so certain was her rapist, Ronald Cotton, was in fact, innocent.

Over coffee the other day at a bookstore in Winston-Salem, Thompson-Cannino described how her logical mind accepted the truth, but her emotions were harder to sway.

"Even after DNA evidence cleared Ron, I still saw his face in my memory of that night," she said. "Even after my mind told me the DNA evidence had cleared him, it wasn't until I met Ron that I was able to see him as a person, not my attacker."

She felt tremendous guilt.

"I felt like I'd let down the investigator, and the DA, and the judge, and the entire legal system," she said. "I felt like I'd let the real rapist roam free to rape again." Investigators told her the man who ultimately confessed to her rape had assaulted several women before he was arrested.

All that on top of being violated and assaulted, of having her life torn in two.

Finally, Thompson-Cannino arranged a face-to-face meeting with Cotton to tell him, "I'm so sorry."

She had steeled herself for the meeting, anticipating all manner of response: anger, indifference, derision.

What she couldn't have imagined is what Cotton offered: "He forgave me."

Over time, Thompson-Cannino learned that of the more than 240 men exonerated by DNA testing in recent years, more than 75 percent had been implicated by eyewitness testimony, some of it planted in malleable brains by overeager law officers; some of it just plain wrong.

She also learned, through one wrenching conversation after another, that most men wrongly imprisoned do not blame the victims who testified against them.

"In virtually every case, the victim honestly thought it was him," Thompson-Cannino said. "The system itself may be broken; the system may have a lot of corrupt players, but the victim is almost never one of them."

Thompson-Cannino is the mother of college-age triplets and an activist for legal and judicial reform. She speaks at conferences about her experience.

She and Cotton wrote a book that came out this year, "Picking Cotton," about their remarkable journey and friendship. Over the weekend, they appeared at the N.C. Literary Festival. She and Cotton are scheduled to appear Wednesday before an Ohio Senate committee as that state considers safeguards against false eyewitness testimony that already have been adopted as best practices in North Carolina.

Cannino-Thompson said she feels for the young women in the Abbitt case, the state's seventh DNA exoneration. In her case, the DNA evidence exonerated Cotton and pointed to a man already serving time in jail. The Abbitt case has had no such resolution.

But one thing the victims can be certain of is understanding. After 14 years in prison, Abbitt said at his release: "I pray for those two young victims every day.... I hope they catch the one who did this, because these two young girls are still the victims of this awful crime."

Victims indeed, just like him.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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