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ECU plans events tied to ‘Picking Cotton,’ Pirate Read

N.C. Center on Actual Innocence focus of Tuesday presentation


By Jeannine Manning Hutson
ECU News Services


Christine Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, and exonerated prisoner Dwayne Dail visited the East Carolina University campus Tuesday night as part of Pirate Read’s special events.

And on Oct. 4, the authors of “Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption,” Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, will speak on campus. Erin Torneo is the non-fiction work’s co-author.
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Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino (Contributed photo)
“Picking Cotton” chronicles how two people’s lives became intertwined through a case of misidentification and a prison sentence that followed. As the Pirate Summer Read, the book was to be read by first-year students before they arrived on campus for the fall semester and is being discussed in courses across campus.

Mumma presented information on the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, which leads a unique system that examines innocence claims by convicted felons in North Carolina.
 
The commission was in the news last week with the exoneration of two Buncombe County men who had pleaded guilty more than 10 years ago in the murder of a man to avoid possible death sentences.
 
The center’s primary mission is to identify, investigate and advance credible claims of innocence made by inmates convicted of felonies in North Carolina. The secondary mission is to educate policymakers, students, the public, the media and the legal and law enforcement communities about systemic problems in the criminal justice system that lead to wrongful convictions, and to seek solutions to those problems.
 
The center receives an average of 1,000 inmate inquiries each year and carries an average active caseload of 130 cases, according to the center’s website.
 
Mumma also discussed how the center decides which cases to take, the history and legal aspect of the work, and policy reform in North Carolina.
 
The center coordinates the Innocence Project at each of North Carolina’s law schools and is part of the National Innocence Network coordinated by the Innocence Project at The Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.
 
Thompson-Cannino is a member of the N.C. Actual Innocence Commission and frequently speaks on the need for judicial reform. In 1984, she was a college student living in Burlington when a black man broke into her apartment and raped her. She identified her attacker in a lineup as Ronald Cotton, who insisted that she was mistaken, but he was found guilty and sentenced to life plus 50 years.

After 11 years, Cotton was allowed to take a DNA test that proved his innocence. He was released, after serving more than a decade in prison for a crime he never committed.
 
Two years later, Thompson and Cotton met face-to-face and forged an unlikely friendship that changed both of their lives, according to the book’s cover.
Today, Cotton, his wife and daughter live in North Carolina and he works at an insulation plant. He has spoken about his experience at multiple schools and conferences, including Georgetown Law School and Washington and Lee University.

Thompson-Cannino, Cotton and Torneo, who lives in Dublin, received the 2008 Soros Justice Media Fellowship. The Soros Justice Fellowships fund outstanding individuals to implement innovative projects that advance the efforts of the Open Society Foundations to reform the U.S. criminal justice system.

On Oct. 4, Thompson-Cannino and Cotton will be on campus for several events, including a Q & A session at 2:30 p.m. in Mendenhall Student Center Room 244; a book signing at 3:30 p.m. in the Cynthia Lounge at Mendenhall; and at 7 p.m. a presentation in Wright Auditorium, which is free and open to the public.

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