You have to admire John Grisham. For decades, he has occupied a permanent position on bestseller lists around the world. Since 1991, the 24 books he has written have sold hundreds of millions of copies, but he seems reluctant to rest on his success. In recent years, he has broken away from the genre of “courtroom fiction” that made him a household name. In 2006, he wrote his first work of nonfiction, THE INNOCENT MAN: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, about a man who was wrongfully sentenced to death in Oklahoma. Research and writing about the case made Grisham a vociferous and vigorous public opponent of the death penalty.
In his latest novel, THE CONFESSION, Grisham takes his opposition to capital punishment to a higher level. In the spirit of Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, Grisham has written a thriller about the race to save a wrongfully convicted man from execution. Along the way, he uses the pages of his book to indict a process that Justice Potter Stewart characterized in 1972 as "… cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual because those who are given the death penalty are among a capriciously selected random handful." While THE CONFESSION is fiction, it is based upon fact. Grisham has changed some names and locales, but the abuses of the criminal justice system recounted here are real and easily recognizable to anyone with knowledge of the death penalty and access to a computer search engine.
Donté Drumm is just days away from execution for the murder of Nicole Yarber. Her body was never found, but that fact did not prevent authorities in Texas from convicting Drumm and obtaining a death sentence. Clearly Grisham has chosen Texas as the book’s venue because of its abysmal record in death penalty cases. This fictional case has elements of many horrendous examples of injustice that permeate the Texas legal system. Readers who shake their head in amazement at the accounts in THE CONFESSION should be forewarned that many of the outrages described by Grisham are based upon actual events in the Lone Star State.
As Drumm awaits his fate, Keith Schroeder, the pastor of a small Lutheran church in Topeka, Kansas, receives an unusual visitor. Travis Boyette is a career criminal diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and has only months to live. Boyette bares his soul to Schroeder and confesses to Yarber’s murder. His account is bolstered by his knowledge of where Yarber’s body is buried. As the clock ticks towards Drumm’s execution, Boyette furnishes additional details establishing that he did indeed kill Yarber, and the State of Texas is preparing to execute an innocent man.
THE CONFESSION is an extraordinary narrative, because Grisham, through his advocacy against the death penalty, has become knowledgeable of the flaws and foibles of capital punishment. He uses the novel to expose those who are uninterested in justice and see the death penalty as a vehicle for achieving a political agenda. Included here are spot-on portrayals of the various participants in the death penalty drama and the contributions they make to create injustice. It starts with police officers who view the Constitution with disdain and believe that a hunch of guilt justifies any action that results in conviction. The harrowing steps to obtain Drumm’s confession may be shocking, but they represent actual occurrences countenanced by the legal system. Sadly, that system is made up of prosecutors who view executions as a means to secure re-election and by judges who recognize that upholding Constitutional protections is not a way to win elections.
Grisham recognizes that, in recent years, resources have been allocated to defend those on death row, but their lawyers have too many clients and not enough time. In addition to the actors in the system, there is a media culture that sensationalizes the crimes but pays little attention to the defects in the process. Grisham is spot-on in portraying to readers the flaws in the system that lead to injustice, and even worse, the killing of individuals who are factually innocent. He also is vivid and cryptic in his detailing of the final hours leading to execution. As the clock ticks and the lawyers fight to save Drumm, the tension can almost be felt from page to page. That an innocent man faces death only adds to that tension.
John Grisham is to be applauded for accomplishing a difficult task. Many will read THE CONFESSION and surely ask questions about the death penalty and its application in American courts, and some minds may change. In the tradition of great writers, Grisham has produced a novel that seeks to end an injustice. The death penalty has been placed on trial in the pages of THE CONFESSION and stands convicted.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on October 26, 2010