Jennifer Thompson '85 named North Carolinian of the Year

The N.C. Press Association honored Thompson, a rape survivor and an advocate for reform in the use of eyewitness identification, during a Feb. 25 awards ceremony.

Jennifer Thompson ’85, an advocate for the wrongly convicted, was honored Feb. 25 as the N.C. Press Association’s 2016 North Carolinian of the Year.

Thompson was raped in 1984 while a student at Elon. Her compelling testimony sent Ronald Cotton to a life term in prison for a crime he did not commit. Based on Thompson’s mistaken eyewitness testimony, Cotton spent 11 years in prison before DNA testing exonerated him.

The two later reconciled and wrote “Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption,” a New York Times bestseller that shared their experiences.

Thompson later founded Healing Justice, a nonprofit that seeks to provide support, reconciliation and recovery in cases involving exonerations. She has successfully lobbied state legislators to change compensation laws for the wrongly convicted, to abolish the death penalty, to revise police eyewitness line-up procedures and for many other causes.

“Thompson truly exemplifies the unique spirit of this special award,” a (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News article quotes the NCPA as saying. “While her name may not have the celebrity status of other recent awardees, her work as an advocate for criminal justice reform has landed her national recognition.”

Thompson has appeared on “Oprah,” “60 Minutes,” “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” “The View,” NPR and in People magazine, RedBook and Newsweek, to name a few media outlets. She returned to Elon in 2015 to give a talk, “And then the world changed me,” as part of a TEDx Elon University event.