“Picking Cotton” to be directed by Jessica Sanders is one of the four 2015 grantees of
the Sloan Filmmaker Fund which were recently announced by the Tribeca Film Institute. This year’s recipients will receive a collective total of $150,000 in
This is a riveting true story of rape survivor Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, whom she had wrongfully identified as her rapist. After 11 years in
prison, DNA evidence cleared Ronald of the crime. Jennifer and Ronald are now friends and activists, improving the criminal justice system. See all the
engagements, awards and attention that Ronald and Jennifer are pursuing for social justice here.
The film is in early development. Jessica Sanders is an Academy Award®-nominated, Sundance and Cannes winning filmmaker and commercial director. Jessica
directed “After Innocence”, a feature documentary film about innocent men wrongfully convicted of crimes, cleared by DNA evidence and their
struggle to reenter society after spending decades in prison.
The Tribeca Film Institute jury included producer Anne Carey, actors Raul Esparza and Danny Glover, physicist Ben Lillie and neuroscientist Daniela
Schiller. TFI Sloan Filmmaker Fund grantees who’ve seen great success include “The Imitation Game,” nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture, and
Andrew Bujalski’s 2012 “Computer Chess,” which was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards.
The 2015 TFI Sloan Filmmaker Fund grantees include some familiar faces. Ben Lewin directed the critically adored 2012 “The Sessions,” nabbing Helen Hunt a
Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Documentarian Jessica Sanders was Oscar-nominated for her short film “Sing!” in 2002 and directed another documentary about the judicial powers of DNA
evidence, “After Innocence” which premiered at Sundance in ’05.
“After Innocence” which featured an appearance by Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton whom she introduced to her friend, writer Erin Torneo, because she
knew that Thompson and Cotton wanted to write a book about their experiences. After reading about their case and speaking with Jennifer on the phone, Ms.
Torneo flew to North Carolina to meet the pair. The three of them hit it off immediately and Erin states that writing about such a compelling story is
intimate and she felt honored to be a part of Picking Cotton published on March 9, 2009 which by March 22 went
on to become a N.Y. Times best seller.
Author and editor Erin Torneo is a highly praised and accomplished in the world of literary achievements. She is a 2007 Fellow in Nonfiction Literature at
the New York Foundation for the Arts and a 2008 Soros Justice Media Fellow at the Open Society Institute. She also won the 2010 American Society of
Journalists & Authors Arlene Award for Books That Make a Difference. Her literary awards are accompanied by a significant number of publications in
magazines such as our own Indiewire, SOMA, SEED, Lucky, The Kyoto Journal, The Independent, Variety, and Seal Press.
Ms. Torneo is a former editor for Cosmopolitan magazine and has written two nonfiction works, including The Bridal Wave: A Survival Guide to the Everyone-I-Know-is-Getting-Married Years, and the New York Times best seller Picking Cotton.
Erin grew up in a small suburb of Hartford, Connecticut, but ventured far from home when she decided to attend UCLA for her undergraduate degree. She was a
creative writing major and worked in film, but did not pursue writing passionately until she moved to Japan and began writing for magazines.
Ms. Torneo said once she began getting paid to write, she was hooked on the profession. While in Japan, she lived with her friend Valerie Cabrera Krause
who was the coauthor of The Bridal Wave. The book focused on “waiting for Mr. Right” and the pressures of getting married at a certain age.
Ms. Torneo was struggling with this concept herself; however, the day after she turned in her manuscript for the book, her boyfriend proposed.
Erin Torneo lives in Dublin, Ireland with her husband and two sons.
Partially written by Sarah Christian, student author
Now an avid activist for judicial reform, Jennifer Thompson has been through much in her lifetime. She was born in 1962 to Jim and Janet Thompson, who were
originally from Winston Salem, where Jennifer would reside for the majority of her life. Her childhood was typical of rural North Carolina. In her own
words, she had “lots of siblings and pets to play with.” From the age of nine to sixteen, she and her family lived on a farm with cows, chickens, goats,
and sheep. Just a couple of short years after moving from the farm, Jennifer began college at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, pursuing a degree in
On July 29, 1984 her life was changed forever. A man broke into her apartment and raped her. After the accused was sentenced to life in prison, Jennifer
struggled to put her life back together.
Following the trial, she married Vinny Cannino and two years later they had triplets, Blake, Morgan, and Brittany. Although her beautiful family made it
easier to cope with her past, she was never able to accept completely what happened to her on that dreadful July night. Eleven years after putting the man
that she was sure had raped her behind bars, she found out that he was innocent. She lived in constant fear and guilt until she finally agreed to meet him
face to face. She and the accused formed a lifelong friendship.
After Jennifer’s divorce from her first husband, she married Frank Baumgartner, and she currently resides in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Her daughters
are successful college students, one of whom currently attends Elon University. Her son works in the lobster industry in Maine. She and Ronald remain great
friends and have been able to deal with their grief by publishing their story in an inspiring, uplifting memoir. They now work with many organizations,
such as the North Carolina Center of Actual Innocence, in order to advocate the need for judicial reform.
Jennifer began writing Picking Cotton with co-authors Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo in 2006. After forgiving her rapist, forming a friendship with
Ronald, and accepting everything that has happened to her, Jennifer is now able to share her story with others without the humiliation and guilt she once
felt before. After years of remembering and writing every gruesome detail of her rape.
Written by: Alexis Luther & Madelon Wygand, student authors
Ronald Cotton had a troubled childhood that included jail time at sixteen years old for breaking and entering with the intent to rape. When drunk, he snuck
into his white girlfriend’s house thinking they could “fool around”, but her mom caught them and had him arrested. A little later he dropped out of high
school. His lack of education and previous charges led to his arrest on 1 August 1984 for the rape of Jenifer Thompson.
Ronald spent eleven years in prison and was finally released in June of 1995, when he was exonerated by DNA evidence. Ronald struggled to adapt to life
outside of prison, but he eventually came to live a more normal life. He originally found a job at Lab Corp, a DNA testing center, but is now working at an
insulation plant. He has a beautiful wife and a daughter; they live together in Burlington, NC.
In August 2011, Ronald suffered a stroke that gave him a useless right arm, bad right leg, and a droopy face. Ronald has teamed up with Jennifer and is
traveling the United States talking to exonerees, law students, and audiences interested in his book and experience. He and Jennifer are attempting to
transform the legal system to prevent future wrongful convictions and to free those who have been wrongfully convicted.
Written by Andrew Geddes, student author