The phrase "Grisham book" and word "important" aren't often found in the same sentence, but John Grisham's 2006 non-fiction book, "The Innocent Man", allows me to state that Grisham has now written the most important book of his mega-successful career, and one of the most important I've read by any author.
The book recounts two murders in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma. Both victims are young women. In both cases, the local and state police investigating the case are stumped. But with a toxic blend of extremely circumstantial "evidence", shocking crime scene photos, junk science, inexpert experts, jailhouse snitches and critical "dream confessions" induced by near-torture tactics, the police pin the murders on four young men of the area, two per murder.
The "innocent man" of the title is 30-something ne'er-do-well Ron Williamson, a schoolboy baseball star whose dreams of playing in Yankee Stadium dissolve in the low minors in a mix of arm injuries, booze and the onset of mental illness. By the time of the murder that consumes most of Grisham's tale, Williamson has washed up back home in Ada, and deservedly earned a reputation as a loudmouth loose cannon of sorts. Still his worst crime is passing a $300 phony check.
Skipping forward quickly, Williamson becomes the focus of the police's investigation and ultimately finds himself on death row in an Oklahoma criminal justice system whose aim seems to be to continuously reduce the amount of respect shown to death row inmates until it reaches zero. Shrewd detectives that they are, the police "know" that there's a second killer because of a misspelled warning message written in catsup at the scene, "dont chase us or ealse." Enter suspect two, single father Dennis Fritz, whose main crime is to be a friend of Williamson.
I'll stop here regarding the "plot", even though this is a news story and you could look it up. While novelistic in format, "The Innocent Man" reads more like a newspaper report, or like a lawyer dispassionately recounting the facts of a case. (Well after awhile not so dispassionately, as the injustices against the accused and then convicted men pile up.) The issues raised by the case and brought to light by Grisham cover the gamut of criminal justice - abuse of police power, single-minded focus on particular suspects and deliberate ignorance of others, near-torture-induced confessions, prosecutorial arrogance, lack of resources provided to defendants, mishandling of evidence, coercion of expert witnesses, use of junk science to dazzle a jury, the general and mistaken belief by the community that the police only arrest guilty parties, and most compellingly in Williamson's case, the inability of the criminal justice system to recognize and deal humanely with mentally ill prisoners.
My wife read the almost 450-page paperback version in one day. She then bugged me to read it for several days until I interrupted my second attempt at Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer: A Novel and dove in. Even while sick, I finished it in a day-and-a-half. After his disappointing novella "Bleachers", I'd pretty much written off Grisham (never have considered him much better an airplane read in the first place), but I'm deeply grateful to him to recognizing the power of this story and bringing to the attention of so many people with this fine book. I also salute him for sticking to the non-fiction format, resisting the novelist's urge to fictionalize the story and embellish it with tie-ins to the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 and the like. "The Innocent Man" may not stand up as literature to recently-deceased Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, but it's still a great book--the best true-crime story I've read with the most important messages about America's criminal justice system and its generally unrecognized threat to innocent men and women everywhere (and especially in Ada, OK where the DA that prosecuted the cases is still in office).
Ambivalence really sums up my feelings toward Mr. Grisham's latest book. Depressing is another. I applaud Mr. Grisham in his attempt to analyze the hows and whys of just what happened to Ron Williamson during his hectic, confusing, and sometimes just unlucky life. From outstanding major league baseball prospect, to drug and alcohol abuser, to mentally unstable convict, to exonerated felon, Ron Williamson never really knew any peace off the baseball diamond. His dream of a major league career shattered he simply withdrew into his own private hell of dope, booze, loose women, honky tonks, and insanity.
Sometimes a difficult book to follow, the darkness that Mr. Grisham maintains throughout the book is at times oppressive. How many times must Ron Williamson have to exhibit mental instability before someone, anyone, gets him real help and not just temporary "band-aid" his CHRONIC mental problems. It is a wonder that he didn't harm someone during his drunken, drug induced haze. Finally convicted of a murder he never committed, the complex judicial process to free him was very well told by Mr. Grisham. Ron's years spent on "death row" were both illuminating, sad, and frightening all at the same time. His eventual release and exoneration was the ONLY happy point in an otherwise sad biography of a profoundly unhappy life.
Again, I was ambivalent about this book. I can not say I enjoyed it but I did learn from it. This is not your typical light Grisham reading so be very careful. Be ready for a heavy, dark, oppressive book that while educating about the legal system, at the same time leaves one empty about the sad state of this nation's mental health programs. This up close and personal view of America's seamy underbelly will stay with you for quite awhile.
on January 7, 2008
The fact that this is a true story is both the book's greatest asset and it's biggest liability as well. To think that such irresponsible legal shenanigans could occur in America is truly a sobering thought. The manner in which the Williamson case and others described in the book were handled by the parties involved is disgusting. That aspect of the story makes the book an intriguing read.
On the flip side, the true nature of the story also holds Grisham back. In sticking with the facts, his creativity was limited. Among Grisham's greatest strengths as a writer are character development and intricate setting of the locale. In both of these instances, the facts limit what Grisham can do. Simply put, at times I felt I was reading the daily news, not a book.
Grisham should be applauded for writing a book that helped bring this injustice to a larger audience. The book may not entertain, certainly not to the degree of his best work, but what he did here was more important than anything else he could have written. Somewhere, at some point in the future, this book will prevent another innocent individual from being unfairly railroaded. If nothing else, Grisham should be proud of that fact, and we all should be grateful to him.
Justice sometimes get to be a commodity, rationed not by need but by wealth. This dirty secret is something all lawyers, including myself, know.
The justice system itself is designed to protect the truly innocent even at the cost of protecting the guilty. Thus a lot of safeguards are built into the system because experience has shown that once an injustice is done, it is very difficult to undo it.
Criminal lawyers, and although I am a trial lawyer I practice solely in the civil courts, will tell you that their greatest nightmare is to represent the truly innocent client. This is because although the law presumes the client is innocent, trial counsel, jaded by thousands of lies from clients, does not. If your lawyer does not truly believe in you, and you are truly innocent, can you get a fair trial?
The answer to this question is explored in what may be the best true-crime work since In Cold Blood. Ron Williamson, former minor league prospect, now burdened with incurable mental illness is targeted by the police and prosecutors in Ada, Oklahoma as the killer of Debbie Carter. Another man Dennis Fritz, whose real crime was to be a friend to Ron, is also targeted.
When the police fail to turn up a killer in nearly five years of investigation and an author puts the spotlight on the local police for a highly questionable conviction in another murder case, the cops and prosecutors press forward against Fritz and Williamson, using perjured evidence, discredited forensics, high emotion, and active concealment of exculpatory evidence. The trial judge tolerated the abuse of the defendants constitutional rights to the point of scheduling a Brady motion ( a hearing to punish the state for not turning over exculpatory evidence) after the trial, when it could do no good. The appellate courts, perhaps overwhelmed with appeals from the truly guilty, showed little evidence of ever having read the record.
So it came down to the federal courts for the system to correct itself. A federal magistrate judge carefully considered the briefs, and the trial record and was persuaded that Williamson had been denied a fair trial. The district judge, exercising the same degree of care as his magistrate and law clerks concurred, ordering the state to retry Williamson, who at one point was five days away from a date with death.
It was that order for a new trial that set into motion the events that would lead to the total exoneration of Williamson and Fritz.
When the DNA results were provided, they not only showed that Williamson and Fritz were not involved and also that the chief prosecution witness against them was in fact the real killer.
on October 15, 2006
John Grisham fans may regard this book with suspicion. It is not his usual gripping fiction. I will admit that I have read very few of his books because I am more interested in nonfiction; although I did read A Painted House and I loved it. However, this book is captivating. I was fascinated and couldn't put it down. Some true crime books predictably describe the crime and then in agonizing detail relay what happened during the trial, including transcripts of opening and closing arguments (which I usually skip through.) Grisham only includes information that is meaningful and allows the story to flow. I found it almost painful to follow every development of the evidence because I knew the significance and I was so sympathetic to the main character. I also enjoyed his occasional sarcastic comments here and there, which provided some amusement and levity.
I think that if one enjoys the true crime genre, and respects John Grisham's writing talent, this book is absolutely worth the read. I recommend it whole-heartedly. I was disappointed when I watched his interview on the Today show and he said he would likely never write non-fiction again.
on November 27, 2006
To be honest, I had grown tired of John Grishom's books. They seemed to all have the same plot after a while. But this book...WOW. I was very impressed. What a scary thing to think that this goes on in our judicial systems, however, I have seen first hand that it does happen, everyday in our court systems. While some may feel that they were weighed down in too many facts, most true crime stories do this, but I didn't find it to be boring in the least. It was a great book, one of his best.
on September 26, 2007
This story had a tremendous impact on me. I support the death penalty but was abhorred to see how flippantly it was applied in Ada Oklahoma. Read this book first and then log onto District Attorney Peterson's web site to read his defense of his actions that were the subject of the book. The first thing he displays on his website is the American flag. Then he has a lengthy and tedious defense of all the minor points in Grisham's novel. He provides statistics on the probability of innocent people being convicted of felonies as if this excuses him for almost sending an innocent person to his death. Peterson tries to blow off Grisham as an anti-death penalty advocate. I truly fear for the soul of Mr. Peterson and the good people of Ada Oklahoma - a bit of remorse and repentance for what they almost did to an innocent man would help them when they meet their Maker. Hiding behind the American flag might help now but certainly not later!
on November 23, 2006
"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."
Whenever I think of John Grisham, I think of all the joy that he has brought to me through his writing, and I am always happy to see his new arrivals.
An Innocent Man is a work of non-fiction taking place in the state of Oklahoma, in the small town of Ada, in the eighties.
When Debra Sue Carter, a cocktail waitress is raped and murdered one night after leaving a bar, the police pounce immediately on Dennis Fritz, and Ron Williamson; two young men of Ada. With no evidence or witnesses, it seems as though the Law wanted to have someone to bring before the courts to prove they were doing their job. These two unfortunate men kept claiming their innocence over and over again, but all to no avail. Their appeals fell on death ears. Eventually, Mr. Fritz was given a life sentence and Mr. Williamson sent to death row.
How did the judicial system work that out? Why did they not spend some more time trying to get at the truth of what really happened that night? They spend their hopeless lives behind bars until one day; someone gets the guts to tear this charade to pieces, bit by bit, revealing the plain truth of that night.
What makes you mad about this case is to see the amount of precious time these guys wasted in jail. It took a toll on their mental and physical health, and someone should have to pay for incriminating these poor guys.
Reviewed by Heather Marshall Negahdar (SUGAR-CANE 23/11/06)
This book chronicles the life of one Ron Williamson, born in Ada, OK, 1953, as he spiraled down from being the teen-age town hope as the next Mickey Mantle to being the town drunkard in his twenties, living only on the generosity of friends and family, and, worst of all, to death row in the OK prison system after egregious actions of the local prosecutor resulted in Ron's unjustified conviction for the murder and assault of a young female.
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.
The book does get a bit tedious in following the carousing of Ron and his buddies and the many attempts of him and others, most especially his older sister Annette, to obtain help for his fragile mental state. Even upon release from prison after being exonerated, there is a lot of transitioning among a variety of residences and nursing facilities. The author's entire coverage of the subject of mental illness and competency as it relates to the legal process is vaguely presented at best. Furthermore, as Ron's story unfolds, the reader is constantly given the impression that Ron is practically insane and must be pumped full of psychotic drugs, yet the treatments are constantly abandoned and he functions reasonably well until the next intervention. His approach seems unnecessarily alarmist.
Though not emphasized by the author, this book is a huge reminder of the ramifications of poor child rearing and exaggerated expectations of a professional career in sports. Ron as the youngest in his family learned to be a manipulator, forcing the family to spend money on him that was not there. He was so certain that he would make it to the big leagues in baseball that he had no backup plan, nor did he receive much in the way of realistic consultation in that area. He was not well-served by his parents or by those who exploited his baseball skills with tremendous consequences to his maturation.
While the author acknowledges that Ron became a loud drunk and often intimidating when his abbreviated baseball career ended at age twenty-four, he has little to say concerning Ron's very real potential for violence. During Ron's hearings and trials numerous women came forward with stories of being frightened by Ron, which were not refuted. And of course, he was acquitted of two rapes in Tulsa in his early twenties. Ron is not a particularly sympathetic character. Though obviously wrongly accused and convicted of this murder, it is not a stretch to wonder what potential for violence existed within.
It really is alarming to think that an innocent man can get to death row. But in this case, the local law enforcement personnel and the prosecutor actually did not care. They knew they had no case, yet manipulated the system to put an innocent man on death row. Is justice in this country really that fragile? This was a factual case. Their non-involvement was clear. But the facts meant nothing. That is the author's main story.
As a further note, the local prosecutor vehemently objects to the author's book and has on a web site a lengthy rebuttal. Yes, maybe the author obscured or ignored some facts or got others out of order. Yet the rebuttal does not explain away the fundamental actions that were taken to put an innocent man on death row. One would think that the citizens of Ada would fear facing this prosecutor, but he has been elected time after time. That's disturbing.
on April 26, 2007
I cannot judge Grisham's writing since the story is so appalling that to judge the writing of it is missing the point. I give it 5 stars because I found it to be well-told but more importantly because Grisham had the guts to tell it how it was. Others here have stated that the story is at times hard to follow. Nonsense. It was a complex story told with great clarity. If a reader had problems with the compexity, that is not the author's fault. I also saw here in reviews that at least one reader was disappointed in Grisham's writing since they "expected more" because of his fiction writing. The truth is not always lovely and it should not be presented in such a way as to take away from that truth. I thought Grisham kept back from trying to grandstand his own writing ability by being straightforward in his style. The only thing I did not like about the writing part was the occasional use of exclamation points. I don't like exclamation points when they are not used within dialogue! That is just my pet peeve.
The point of this story was to expose the rampant nonsense that goes on within our legal system. If you, as a reader, want more from this book, you miss the point of it and you are wasting your time reading the story. It is a sad and depressing commentary on how prominent people can screw over those who are poor and have mental problems.
Yes, Ron Williamson was indeed a problem person and he had an enormous amount of personal issues. That does not excuse our legal system one iota. I don't care how hellish your behavior is, you deserve a fair trial by people in power. Period. Without this, you might as well slit your throat now and call it a day. The reading of this book made me angry because the people that put a man on death row for over a decade are still in power; quite specifically, the district attorney that prosecuted the case for years. That is the saddest part of this entire story mainly because it leaves little hope for justice in the true sense of the word.