Sunday, April 20, 2008

Book Review: The Innocent Man - John Grisham

Also published at

After lying unread on my bookshelf for over 9 months, I finally got around to reading John Grisham's latest offering and first work of non-fiction - "The Innocent Man".

Growing up on a steady diet of Erle Stanley Gardner and in love with Perry Mason, it was but natural that I become a fan of John Grisham's legal works of fiction. But other than "Skipping Christmas" which was moderately interesting, his non-legal fiction did not excite me at all. So I wasn't sure what to expect with his work of legal non-fiction.

Fortunately it was interesting reading for the most part except the botched trial that got really slow and repetitive. Since this was a true story and Grisham was using actual court transcripts, he had to keep it so, but could have edited it a bit to make it crisper. Maybe all the legal serials we watch - The Practice, Law & Order, Boston Legal and others of their ilk have gotten me to expect snappy, sharp detective work, logical but persuasive arguments by counsel and crisp closing statements. The way the case was handled was completely slip shod and pathetic and makes you wonder at the possibility of truly getting justice unless you are in a TV serial.

Little wonder that a libel suit was filed against John Grisham on 28, September 2007, by Pontotoc County - Oklahoma, District Attorney Bill Peterson and Gary Rogers, a former Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent.

This true story, is remarkable for the fact that the main accused Ron Williamson who was framed by the law enforcement team of Pontotoc County was not just a "white" man, he was a semi-FAMOUS "white" man.

Ron Williamson was a local hero on the baseball field and was also the 41st pick in baseball's 1971 amateur draft, a second-round selection by the Oakland Athletics. Due to poor performance, he did not hit the big time but he was still quite a local celebrity when he was accused as the murderer of cocktail waitress Debra Carter.

His co-accused Dennis Fritz had nothing to implicate him except that he and Williamson were occasional "drinking buddies". Ironically Fritz's own wife had been murdered 7 years ago.

The police used forced dream confessions, convicted felons as snitches and witnesses, junk science and other dubious means to get them both convicted. Williamson got the death penalty which automatically set a series of appeals in motion while Fritz got a life sentence.

Through his incarceration, Williamson deteriorated physically and mentally despite the efforts of some good hearted souls until the Innocence Project - (basis for the serial In Justice) helped get them both acquitted after 12 years on the basis of the new technology - DNA testing.

Grisham read Williamson's obituary when he died (5 years after being released) and was inspired to research and write this book.

I started out reading the book, knowing that the main accused was innocent (could the title have been more descriptive?). Grisham wrote the book, knowing that Williamson was innocent. But even someone who didn't know some of the data presented here in hindsight, could have seen that this was a wrongful conviction. And it appalls you that even though the case came up for appeal multiple times, each person upheld the original wrongful conviction.

Hence Grisham seems to have achieved his major goal in writing this novel.

"If you believe that in America, you are innocent until proven guilty, this book will shock you.
If you believe in the Death Penalty, this book will disturb you.
If you believe the criminal justice system is fair, this book will infuriate you"

1 comment:

Netherland said...

The book is strongest in its depiction of what it is like for a person with limited resources to become ensnared in the legal system, where without good legal counsel the checks are few on police misconduct, even coercion, manufactured witnesses, misuse of so-called experts, and prosecutors willing to sacrifice the innocent to community demands for revenge. In addition, the book is commentary on the willingness of prison systems to permit the physical and, even more so, the mental deterioration of inmates, denying treatment for blatantly obvious conditions. In contrast to local malfeasance, the various legal persons at the appeals levels were consummate professionals and were ultimately responsible for recognizing prosecutorial excess in the very trying of Ron Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz. Whether their recognition of prosecutorial misconduct would have resulted in acquittal in another trial became irrelevant in the face of exonerating DNA evidence.

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