Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton Discuss Their Book "Picking Cotton"

A few months ago I attended a film screening sponsored by Restorative Rochester. Since then I signed up on their Yahoo! Group and have been lurking for a while. The group's goals revolve around "restorative justice" which — as I understand it — involves bringing victim and perpetrator together to find a sense of closure. The U.S. legal system is a correctional and punitive system that seeks to find a way to punish a perpetrator in a manner proportional to their crime — yet it ignores the wishes of victims in its rigidity.

Last week I decided to introduce myself to the group. I mentioned that I wanted to refrain from contributing in conversation as I want to try and give my legal-system thinking time to adapt to the possibilities of something else. In other words, I'd probably ask the same questions as anyone, starting with, "if you offer an alternative to punishment, won't that give criminals free reign?"

Anyway, lurking lasted all of a half a day. Kit Miller sent out an message that they were looking for additional people to join the group for a dinner with Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, and Ronald Cotton, co-authors of Picking Cotton at The Asbury First United Methodist Church (1050 East Ave.) I had intended to go to the lecture and discussion anyway, so I immediately agreed.

Ronald and Jennifer have the most awkward answer to "so how did you two meet?" In 1984 Jennifer was raped in her apartment. She had the presence of mind to study her attacker and memorized his face. Through the course of the investigation, the closest match was Ronald Cotton, and she confidently believed he was her attacker. He went to prison for 11 years until he was granted permission to have the DNA evidence tested and, as he had claimed all along, he was not the man who raped her. Eventually Jennifer sought to meet Ronald to resolve her fear that he was steeped in resentment toward her. As it turned out, she was mistaken, and they became friends as both were victims of the actual perpetrator who was later convicted of Jennifer's rape and six others after hers.

The first time I heard their story, I thought, "that's wonderful" (albeit in a heavily qualified way). A more common reaction is to be incredulous that there can be any healing and forgiveness. But what alternative to forgiveness is there? And in this case, it was neither Jennifer's nor Ronald's fault, so it seems obvious to me. I don't mean that I'm holier-than-thou, but even when I'm angry at a transgression against me, I cool very quickly and generally conclude that staying angry — or generally believing in the winner/loser model — offers less value than forgiveness and resolution. That said, I'm less amenable when the other party stays remorseless and confrontational. Thankfully that's usually not the case, especially when I can genuinely offer a solution through forgiveness.

The things that resonated most with me were about the ways our justice system failed. Racism and prejudice aside (not from Jennifer or Ronald, by the way), I was once again jarred by the unreliability of eye-witness evidence, I reinforced my opposition to the death penalty, and I am saddened that people justify the bad things they do by believing that they have some kind of credit for being a "good person".

On prejudice, I'll just note that the police, after hearing Jennifer's description and seeing her composite sketch, probably swayed the whole case by presenting Jennifer a 3-year-old photo of Ronald that better matched her description.

Having watched things like The Selective Attention Test, I'm amazed at how bad my perception really is. Like everyone, I live every day with the persistent, tenacious illusion that what I perceive is a perfect reflection of reality. Yet when I'm presented with something like that video, I'm always astonished. I keep that knowledge close at hand, however, and even if I fully believe in my perception, I deliberately apply uncertainty to the way I express my perception to others. Yet nobody teaches us that fact — that our perception is lackluster — so our justice system is still rooted in an ancient belief that an eye-witness is proof-positive. Thankfully, I think this is changing (even lawyers who claim this is true are not considered as deceitful as they once were).

Relatedly, would this not be the kind of case that warranted the death penalty? What if the real rapist had gone on to kill his other victims — and Jennifer was the only one who survived? It is far too big a risk to potentially kill an innocent person. In addition, they had mentioned in the talk that the DNA evidence from the case was slated to be destroyed 3 days before Ronald requested the test, so had the justice system acted at its normal geologically-scaled rate, Ronald would still be in prison, and all the good that happened wouldn't have.

And finally, my favorite topic: religion bashing.

Ok, actually it's only tangentially related. The fundamental problem is believing in the possibility that a person can be good or bad. It's as illogical as claiming a glass of water is happy or sad: it is not the kind of assessment that makes sense. Only individual actions, taken in isolation, can be considered good or bad. And even then, the moral judgement is largely based on the observer.

The trouble in this misattribution is that belief in morality within a person dilutes the perception of morality in their actions. And I'm talking about belief in the self: if I believe I'm a good person, then any action I do must necessarily be good (or at least better than a bad person who does the same thing). Likewise, if I think I'm a bad person, then it's in my nature to do something bad.

So how does this relate to religion bashing? Well Jennifer mentioned that when she doubted herself — when she doubted her actions were the most right thing to do — she remembered her religious upbringing and reinforced her belief in her inherent goodness, ergo the goodness of her actions. I think that the failing of religions is teaching "you are a good person". As I said, the nature of that statement is in error.

A better teaching would be that your past does not dictate your behavior — that there is not inherent good or bad in people, but that whatever you do or don't will benefit some and harm others. I get stuck at this point because no guideline is adequate. Everyone desires to do good (that is, for ones actions to have beneficial consequences): it's at the heart of what lets us as individuals and us as a society survive. Any attempt to codify that dilutes what it is to be human.