San Antonio News Express
San Antonio News-Express


November 27, 2010

The Confession
by John Grisham

Doubleday, $28.95

This is how prescient novelist John Grisham can be: About two weeks after the publication of "The Confession," his new novel, an open appeal to end the death penalty everywhere set mostly in Texas, real news arrived about new evidence that indicates Texas possibly executed an innocent man in 2000.

DNA testing of a hair strand, a decade after Claude Jones was executed, shows it likely came from the victim, not the defendant. It was the only physical evidence used to convict Jones in a 1989 liquor store robbery-murder.

The Confession

Grisham's stance against the death penalty is no secret. He holds leadership positions at the anti-death penalty Innocence Project in New York and at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

In "The Confession," Grisham structures a story to illuminate one way a death-penalty conviction can go wrong. The novel is set mainly in the fictitious city of Slone, Texas, near Texarkana, for a reason. Texas is known as an execution-happy state. The East Texas setting lends itself to the novel's racial discrimination theme.

Grisham's story and the Jones case are similar in that the two convictions depended on thin evidence. Otherwise, the stories are different.

In "The Confession," a black high school football player, Donté Drumm, is convicted of rape and murder of a white high school cheerleader after a false confession is coerced out of him by a local detective. Another football player with an ax to grind lies about being a witness.

The real killer, a serial rapist named Travis Boyette, is astonished that Drumm is convicted and sent to death row. As Drumm nears his execution date after nine years on death row, Boyette is released on parole from a Kansas prison for an unrelated crime.

Boyette approaches a Topeka minister, alleging he is dying and wants to save Drumm by confessing to the cheerleader's murder. The matter becomes a suspenseful race against time because the prosecutors in Texas, the appeals court and the state's execution-proud governor do not want to hear any new evidence from Drumm's lawyer, especially if it comes from someone who has been in prison.

Grisham clearly wants readers to focus on one character, the minister who drives Boyette to make his confession. The minister, Keith Schroeder, is the one person who enters the story without any preconceived notion about the death penalty.

As Schroeder struggles to save Drumm from execution, the minister experiences firsthand Texas' dysfunctional justice system, which is what Grisham wants his readers to see.

"When Texas wants to kill somebody, they're gonna do it. Got another planned later this month. It's an assembly line around here, can't nobody stop it," Drumm tells his mother shortly before the execution date. "They don't care about guilt or innocence, Momma, all they care about is showing the world how tough they are. Texas don't fool around. Don't mess with Texas. Ever heard that?"

"The Confession," Grisham's 22nd novel, may be written with a strongly worded, subjective point of view, but no one can argue Grisham made a mistake by setting his death-penalty novel in Texas. The real news adds a large measure of credibility to Grisham's story.

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Truth in Justice