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National Speakers to Talk on Wrongful Convictions

February 26, 2014

Two national speakers will be featured at a pair of convocations next week at the Emmetsburg and Estherville campuses of Iowa Lakes Community College. The topic is on wrongful convictions in the court system and covers the story of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a 4.0 GPA and lofty goals for her future. Her path was dramatically altered however, when a man broke into her apartment, put a knife to her throat, and raped her.

In that moment, her determination took an entirely different direction, as she focused all attention on memorizing the man’s features. Searching for scars, tattoos, and any unique features that could help her identify him, she was certain that she could put him in prison for life. After a composite sketch, line-up identification, and trial, Jennifer Thompson’s testimony and memory led to a life sentence for Ronald Cotton.

Years later, Thompson was asked to provide a DNA sample for further analysis of the case. She agreed to the request, positive that her identification of Cotton would be held up by science. In an instant, both lives changed, when it was revealed that Ronald Cotton was not her rapist, and after spending 11 years in prison as an innocent man, he was released.

Devastated that her actions led to the imprisonment of an innocent man, Thompson reached out to Cotton to apologize, and in an act of true generosity, he forgave her. Their unlikely friendship and bond became the basis for the New York Times best-selling book, “Picking Cotton,” which Iowa Lakes’ faculty, staff, and students have been reading this academic year.

Thompson and Cotton will be speaking in the gymnasium of the Estherville Campus on Wednesday, March 5 at 9 a.m. and in the auditorium of the Emmetsburg Campus later that day at 1 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

“Having Jennifer and Ronald present at Iowa Lakes Community College is a genuine privilege,” said Mark Gruwell, Executive Dean of Instruction and Development and a former trial attorney who specialized in civil rights law. “I had the opportunity to see them speak in Florida several years ago, and it was one of the most moving presentations I have ever experienced.”

The event is co-sponsored by Buena Vista University, the Innocence Project of Iowa, Humanities Iowa, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson, authors of “Picking Cotton.”
Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson, authors of “Picking Cotton.”

For More Information:

Mark Gruwell, Executive Dean of Instruction and Development at 712-362-0439 or

Questions or comments? Please email us at or call 712-362-2604 or 800-521-5054.
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