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Inside were white women who’d served unearned time, white men, a few Hispanics. As in prison black men were disproportionately represented. They had served five years or 37 years, and a lot had spent 20-some years locked away for rapes and murders they didn’t commit. The lucky ones had girlfriends and wives by their sides. Innocence Project staff attorney Vanessa Potkin described them all as inspirations. “We who do innocence work are in awe of you,” she said. The low-key reception was an opportunity for exonerees to meet and mingle. The three-day conference was designed to educate and motivate the exonerators. The first part of that mission took place in an atmosphere created by the National Academy of Sciences’ February release of a congressionally mandated report that found dramatic deficiencies in forensic sciences so often used to help convict criminal defendants. The finding gives substantial ammunition to lawyers working to overturn wrongful convictions. The motivational mission got a powerful lift Friday evening, when Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton delivered the keynote. The two have just co-written a book, aptly but unfortunately titled Picking Cotton, describing their mutual ordeal. Thompson-Cannino, white, then in college, and now middle-aged, was raped by a tall, young black man. She identified Cotton, positively and repeatedly, as her rapist. Cotton went to prison on her testimony and spent 11 years there, until someone else’s jailhouse confession and a DNA kit set him free in 1995. Eventually they met, Cotton forgave Thompson-Cannino, and the healing began. They’ve become activists in the aftermath. A question-and-answer period moderated by defense attorney Jeff Blackburn bent under the weight of the evening’s emotions when an impeccably dressed exoneree broke down in angry tears trying to ask Cotton how he’d dealt with his rage behind bars. Cotton was impassivelyor impressivelymild in his handed-it-over-to-God response, as the man’s friends gathered around and walked him back to his seat. Getting out of jail may be the hard part, but when you’ve had the better part of your life taken away from you, the freedom isn’t always easy, either. Brad Tyer APRIL 3, 2009 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5