On July 28, 1984, Jennifer Thompson was sexually assaulted at knifepoint by a man who broke into her apartment. This attack changed the course of her life and inspired her to found Healing Justice, a nonprofit organization aimed at providing aid to those wrongfully convicted of crimes.
This Thursday, the New York Times bestselling author and activist spoke about how that traumatic experience changed the course of her life at Boston College Law School on Thursday, Oct. 6, in an event hosted by the BC Innocence Program to commemorate Wrongful Convictions Day. Thompson spoke about her experience with the criminal justice system.
Thompson began her talk by explaining a slide show projected behind her, displaying various photos of two men.
“I finally, after doing this for 16 years, figured out that it was important to show the photos, because it was important to hold the person accountable who started this whole process,” she said.
The person she referred to is a man named Bobby Poole, who on the night of July 28, 1984, broke into her apartment and sexually assaulted her at knifepoint. The attack completely changed the course of her life, she said.
Thompson recounted awaking in the middle of the night to an uncomfortable presence and sensing the impending attack.
“If this was really, really happening, could you wake up? Is knowing too scary? And so you try really hard to stay asleep, and that was the feeling I had this particular night,” she said.
Poole had been hiding inside of Thompson’s apartment for three hours after a failed breaking-and-entering attempt at another apartment across the street. Thompson was eventually able to escape and sought help from neighbors. Later that evening she learned that the same man assaulted another woman in her apartment complex, but that woman had not clearly seen her attacker and was thus unable to identify him.
Thompson described feeling immense pressure to identify the man both during and after her attack. Each memory she could recall was important, as it could help put the man who sexually assaulted her in prison, she said. This pressure, in addition to a fraudulent tip given to local police, led Thompson to identify a man named Ronald Cotton as the perpetrator of the crime, for which he spend 11 years in prison before becoming the first person in the state of North Carolina to be exonerated by DNA evidence.
Thompson admitted that she initially had no interest in activism work and chose instead to focus on raising her family. But after reconciling and becoming close friends with Cotton, Thompson came to realize that she and Cotton were both victims of a criminal justice system that failed them. They were put through two trials and lost years of their lives to this ordeal, while Bobby Poole, the true attacker, sexually assaulted six more women before his death.
Since 1989, 344 people have been exonerated of crimes by DNA evidence, and about 1,000 more have proven their innocence by other means, Thompson said. In 2000, Thompson wrote an op-ed article for The New York Times titled “I Was Certain But I Was Wrong,” in which she described her experience with wrongful convictions and her stance against the death penalty.
“It changed me in ways I could not have predicted,” she said. “It made me challenge the long-held, preconceived ideas I had been given by my birthright as a white, entitled female. … It taught me a lot about the criminal justice system.”
Thompson went on to found Healing Justice, which focuses on using restorative justice principles to rectify the collective harm of wrongful convictions. Thompson and Cotton received the Special Courage Award from the Office of Victims of Crime in 2015 and co-authored the New York Times bestseller Picking Cotton.
Thompson continues to fight for the wrongfully convicted.
“[That’s] what I do, that’s who I am, that’s why I’m here … it’s every day for me,” she said.
Photo courtesy of Franciscan Life