Fans of John Grisham know what to expect when his latest effort lands on bookstore shelves. Unique plot twists, evil villains, sympathetic heroes and a page-turning plot are the cornerstones of Grisham's work. THE INNOCENT MAN, his newest book, has all of these components in spades with one additional element: it is a true story. His first work of nonfiction will fascinate and frustrate readers as they ponder an American legal system run amuck. This is Grisham's nineteenth book, and in some respects it may be his most important. Fictional characters in fictional courtrooms may cause readers to think briefly about our legal system. THE INNOCENT MAN forces readers to take a probing look at and ask some serious questions about a legal system that, in important criminal cases, appears to be malfunctioning in every corner of our nation.
While THE INNOCENT MAN ostensibly is the story of Ron Williamson, who spent 12 years on Oklahoma's death row after having been convicted of a murder he did not commit, the book is more than Williamson's heartrending tale. Co-defendant Dennis Fritz was wrongfully convicted of murder but sentenced to life in prison. Along with Williamson he was ultimately exonerated by DNA evidence. Two other inmates, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, whose cases were interwoven with Williamson and Fritz, remain imprisoned in Oklahoma serving life sentences despite substantial evidence of actual innocence.
Ada, Oklahoma, was the venue for the outrageous events leading to the miscarriage of justice chronicled in this book. In 1982, that community was rocked by the brutal sexual molestation and murder of Debra Sue Carter. From the outset, the investigation was poorly handled by law enforcement officials, who incorrectly assumed that two individuals were involved in the crime. Promising leads were not investigated because police attempted to establish a case against Williamson and Fritz instead. Grisham records in vivid and excruciating detail how police hid evidence and ignored constitutional safeguards in their zeal to obtain convictions in the case. Sadly, they were ultimately joined in their effort by prosecutors and judges.
One difference between Grisham's traditional works of fiction and the factual accounting of THE INNOCENT MAN is his hero, Ron Williamson, wrongfully convicted of Carter's murder. Williamson is not the sympathetic character one finds in many of Grisham's novels. He starred as a high school athlete in baseball and was selected by the Oakland Athletics in the 1971 Major League draft. His professional baseball career never achieved the promise displayed by his youthful potential, and he returned home to lead a life dampened by divorce, drugs, alcohol and small-time crime. Burdened by mental illness, his attitude contributed in many respects to his conviction. But Grisham's portrayal makes perfectly clear that Williamson's behavior in no way justified the outrageous actions of law enforcement, prosecutors and judges.
It is perhaps one of the ironies of the law that while lawyers and judges failed Williamson, it would be others in those same professions who rescued him only five days before he was scheduled to be executed from imposition of his sentence of death. Lawyers from the Oklahoma death penalty assistance program and a courageous federal judge ultimately secured a new trial for Williamson. During the course of the investigation and preparation for that trial, Williamson underwent DNA examinations that would establish his innocence. It was one of the first big DNA exonerations in American courts.
THE INNOCENT MAN is not a book that Grisham planned to write. Speaking last month to University of Virginia law students, he described how he first came upon Williamson's story when he read an obituary in The New York Times. The headline of the death notice read, "Ronald Williamson, freed from death row, dies at age of 51." That simple sentence stirred Grisham's interest: "After reading the entire obituary, I knew it had the makings of a much longer story." He followed up with interviews and has written a brilliant documentation of how innocent defendants are sentenced to prison far too often in America. His research and writing have caused him to take a long hard look at justice in our nation: "Even if you support the death penalty, you cannot support the death penalty system as it stands in the U.S. My one hope is that people realize this system we have is simply too unfair to continue."
Two of America's greatest courtroom novelists are John Grisham and Scott Turow, who have written about murder and death in our halls of justice. How ironic that both have begun now to speak out about the injustice of capital punishment. Grisham does so in a voice loud and clear and through a book that fully explains why the nation needs to reexamine the process by which we sentence criminals to be executed.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 22, 2011