Grisham explores travesty of justice

The Innocent Man
Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

By John Grisham

Reviewed by Steve Weinberg

The Innocent Man
When the wrong person ends up in prison for a crime somebody else committed, the wrongful conviction ought to trigger reform. After all, when the wrong person is imprisoned, the actual perpetrator might be at liberty to rape and murder again. Despite that obvious statement, police, prosecutors and judges who enable wrongful convictions find it difficult to say they are sorry. In many cases, they never search for the real criminal after it is obvious that a wrongful conviction has occurred.

Among those who keep tabs on wrongful convictions throughout the United States, the Ron Williamson/Dennis Fritz case is legendary, perhaps the most egregious instance ever of incompetence and dishonesty by police, forensic examiners, prosecutors and judges.

Despite its legendary status, despite previous publications about this particular miscarriage of justice, the wrongful-murder convictions of Williamson and Fritz have not made them household names.

That is probably about to change, because celebrity author John Grisham has built his first nonfiction book about crime around the Ada, Okla., rape-murder of Debra Sue Carter. After 16 best-selling novels that have made Grisham a household name and a wealthy man, he has decided that truth is stranger, and more worthy, than fiction. Because of Grisham's fan base, The Innocent Man is quite likely to reach best-seller status, too.

Here is how the Grisham book came to be. During early December 2004, Grisham noticed an obituary in the New York Times under the headline "Ronald Williamson, Freed From Death Row, Dies at 51." Jim Dwyer, a journalist with an admirable history of documenting wrongful convictions, wrote the obituary.

Grisham read it, amazed. How had he missed the original reports about the 1982 rape-murder, the arrest of Williamson and Fritz five years later after it seemed the crime would never be solved, the trials and appeals, the brutal imprisonment of the defendants, and finally, the exoneration of both men after the state of Oklahoma came within five days of executing Williamson and placing Fritz in prison for the rest of his life?

"Not in my most creative moment could I conjure up a story as rich and layered as Ron's," Grisham said later. "And, as I would soon learn, the obituary barely scratched the surface. Within a few hours, I had talked to his sisters, Annette and Renee, and suddenly I had a book on my hands."

After researching the case month after month, Grisham could not believe his good fortune as an author and his dismay as a lawyer who wanted to believe the best about the criminal-justice system.

"With every visit and every conversation, the story took a different turn," Grisham explained. "I could have written 5,000 pages."

Maybe he should have written that many pages. The book, for all its strengths, barely mentions some of the factors. The most die-hard advocates for the sterling reputation of the U.S. criminal-justice system have mostly conceded, after decades of denial, that wrongful convictions occur every year, in many of the 50 states, and frequently in the same local jurisdictions over and over because the same police officers and the same prosecutors refuse to learn from their grievous mistakes.

A 5,000-page book by Grisham perhaps could have elucidated fully all the factors leading to the arrests, trials and prison terms of two men with no connection to the Carter homicide.

Those factors include:

Law enforcement officials desperate to close a murder investigation after years of dead-ends.

Those same law enforcement officials deciding to arrest Williamson based on a theory that failed the commonsense test, then compounded their idiocy by arresting Fritz solely because of his sporadic friendship with Williamson.

The lack of credible physical evidence.

The concocted accounts of unreliable jailhouse snitches hoping for personal favors.

The suppression of evidence by the prosecutors that, if revealed, might have led jurors to acquit the defendants.

Junk science dressed up as reliable and valid evidence as presented under oath by those working in police crime labs.

Defense lawyers in over their heads.

Trial and appellate court judges who apparently failed to pay close attention to the evidence.

The saga features heroes, too, including a few open-minded, persistent lawyers, judges, private investigators and journalists.

It is not a feel-good book, despite the exonerations of Williamson and Fritz. It is an important book, however. Maybe with Grisham shouting out the causes and frequency of wrongful convictions, meaningful reform will occur in every jurisdiction, rather than only a few.

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Truth in Justice