It is possible to murder a woman without killing her — all you have to do is break her.
Jennifer Thompson’s voice quavered slightly during her speech at the UNM School of Law on Thursday evening, as she described the night she lost herself.
At 3 a.m. on July 29, 1984, Thompson died while she was raped in her own bed. While not clinically dead, she said she had died on the inside.
Nearly every audience member’s eyes filled with tears as she told listeners the thoughts that went through her mind while the attacker, who had broken into her home, violated her.
A sorrowful silence settled over the crowd as she recounted every detail of her attacker with no hesitation: 5-foot-11-inches tall, somewhere between the age of 21 to 23, light-skinned African-American male, a pencil-thin mustache and close-cropped hair. He wore a dark blue shirt with white stripes, white knit gloves that ended at his wrists, olive-green or maybe gray tight khaki pants and slip-on canvas boat shoes — dark blue or maybe black.
Though she survived the assault in a physical sense, the hopeful 22-year-old college student who aspired to become a physical therapist was gone.
“I had gone to bed Jennifer Thompson, this girl full of potential and possibilities, and my future was right in front of me,” Thompson said. “That part of my life would be over in less than 30 minutes. I would never, ever see that girl again.”
In her place would be the new Jennifer Thompson — the rape victim who had a duty to remember her experience, the victim who prayed to God every night that her attacker would be raped in prison and then murdered.
Thompson told listeners how she spent the next decade trying to find meaning in her life after working with police to identify and put away the serial rapist who had assaulted her and numerous other women — including one within an hour after Thompson had escaped him.
She told of the day everything changed in June 1995 when DNA testing proved that Ronald Cotton, the man who she identified as her rapist and testified against, was innocent.
“That’s when the earth swallowed me,” she said. “Here’s the thing — I had been a rape victim for 11 years. I knew what to do with that. What do I do with this?”
Thompson then told of the start of her journey to become who she is today. She met with Cotton in April 1997 and told him how sorry she was for putting him in prison, and they became close friends after that.
“We had travelled this parallel journey of hurt and from that place, we could begin to build. From that place, we could begin to reconcile,” she said. “Ronald taught me that day that love and hate cannot coexist in the same human heart. That you cannot be a peaceful person and an angry person in the same human spirit. It doesn’t work like that. Ronald Cotton freed me that day.”
From there, Thompson said she went on to become an advocate for change in the justice system, testifying to how flawed and imperfect eyewitness accounts actually are.
Years later, in the summer of 2000, she would find herself in Houston, in a room full of exonerated men, and one woman, who had all been incarcerated because of the testimony of eyewitnesses.
She was there for a press conference about the case of Gary Graham, an inmate on death row who was going to be executed by the state of Texas. She was planning to tell her story in hopes of convincing the state to give Graham a new trial.
“What was really, really frightening to me was that the state of Texas was going to kill a man based on a single eyewitness ID,” she said. “One who says, ‘I see the shooter from my rearview mirror at 10 o’clock at night, 75 feet away, for two to three seconds.’”
Thompson said that after the eyewitness gave the description, it took six months and several visits from police for the eyewitness to identify Graham with any kind of certainty — despite the fact that several witnesses who said they knew the real killer were positive it wasn’t Graham. None of them were ever called to testify, she said.
Graham was executed in June 2000.
“I vowed that day for the rest of my life that I would be an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of innocent people. It’s changed me and it’s challenged me to think bigger and deeper than what I was given by my birthright.”
Thompson has spent the last 16 years doing just that — advocating for system changes, for those harmed by the system’s failure, and for women.
“It has become beyond just my passion. I think it’s now my vocation,” she said
This led her to launch Healing Justice, an organization with a mission to offer restoration to people who have been wrongfully convicted.
“It is the only nonprofit in the country that works to heal the harm when the system fails,” she said.
The organization works to help exonerees and their families, crime victims and their families, and anyone else who has suffered from a wrongful conviction.
Thompson ended her speech by telling the audience she hoped her story left an imprint on their hearts that will challenge them to think about the system and how they can help change it.
During the Q&A session that followed, Thompson emphasized her belief that even though people like the man who raped her shouldn’t be able to walk free in society, she is firmly against the death penalty.
“I don’t think the state has any right to kill people in my name,” she said.
Many audience members, moved by her speech, lined up to buy the memoir she co-authored with Cotton about their experience, including Jonathan Gardner, an assistant district attorney for New Mexico.
Gardner said Thompson’s presentation inspired him to become a better assistant DA, and to do his job right.
“As an assistant district attorney, I’m of course on the side that’s trying to get convictions,” Gardner said.
“Wrongful convictions are important because a wrongful conviction is a miscarriage of justice. And law students, as the next generation of attorneys, have a responsibility to uphold justice,” Gardner said.
Brittany Edwards, a second year law student who worked with Innocence and Justice Project New Mexico, said she felt it was important for law students to hear stories like this while they’re still learning to become lawyers.
“It’s something that’s very real and we’re going out into this system with these issues that are constantly affecting so many people and even damaging this profession,” Edwards said. “I think it’s important to let (students) know, so that we can be the ones that try to fix it or help prevent something like this from happening.”
Gordon Rahn, a law professor and the director of the Innocence Justice Project, said Thompson’s presentation was the first of three in a series of speakers coming to UNM to talk about wrongful convictions and how they have impacted their lives.
He said he hopes audiences learn that wrongful conviction is a societal issue that everyone must work together to change.
“The fingers of a wrongful conviction are far-reaching, and it could affect anybody out there,” Rahn said.
For more information about the speaker series presented by IJPNM, visit .
Skylar Griego is a culture reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @TDLBooks.