On Sunday, March 8, “60 Minutes” featured a story ostensibly about the frailty of eyewitness testimony in court cases. That part of the story was scary. It turns out, as DNA evidence and psychologists’ studies have proved, that eyewitnesses frequently are wrong. They often misidentify people.
But for me, the more remarkable part of this report was its demonstration of redemption and forgiveness.
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson, then 22, was raped in her apartment at knifepoint. She studied her rapist carefully during the assault, and later identified Ronald Cotton, 22, as the criminal. She had no doubts.
Cotton was convicted and sentenced to life plus 50 years. After 11 years in prison, though, he was exonerated by a DNA test and set free. It turned out the crime had been committed by a known serial rapist.
Thompson was devastated; she’d cost an innocent man more than a decade of freedom. Wracked by guilt, she arranged to meet Cotton at a local church so she could apologize.
“She was nervous. Scared,” Cotton told “60 Minutes” of that meeting.
“I started to cry immediately,” Thompson agreed. “And I looked at him, and I said, ‘Ron, if I spent every second of every minute of every hour for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am, it wouldn’t come close to how my heart feels. I’m so sorry.’ And Ronald just leaned down, he took my hands . . . and he looked at me, he said, ‘I forgive you.’ “
“I told her, I said, ‘Jennifer, I forgive you. I don’t want you to look over your shoulder. I just want us to be happy and move on in life,’ ” Cotton recalled.
This is the effect Cotton’s words had:
“The minute he forgave me, it’s like my heart physically started to heal,” Thompson said. “And I thought, ‘This is what grace and mercy is all about. This is what they teach you in church that none of us ever get.’ And here was this man that I had hated. I mean, I used to pray every day of my life during those 11 years that he would die. That he would be raped in prison and someone would kill him in prison. That was my prayer to God. And here was this man who with grace and mercy just forgave me. How wrong I was, and how good he is.”
Today, Cotton and Thompson are close friends. The former convict and his former accuser travel together to law enforcement seminars to educate detectives and prosecutors about the perils of eyewitness identifications.
I found myself stunned–and, in a sense, shamed–by Cotton’s ability to forgive. “60 Minutes” didn’t explore in much detail Cotton’s and Thompson’s religious leanings, but it implied that both are Christians. Cotton, for instance, was active in his prison’s choir. The two first met at a church.
What Cotton did is exactly what Jesus, and the New Testament generally, call us all to do: forgive others unconditionally, refuse to hold onto wrongs suffered, redeem even the most painful relationships.
But honestly, as much as I admire Cotton, I don’t know that I could have exhibited the level of charity he did. I don’t know that I could walk up to a person who put me in prison for a violent crime I didn’t commit, take her by the hand and say, “I forgive you.” This “60 Minutes” segment left me feeling appropriately humbled.