John Grisham is a master of suspense. In his novels he sets the scenes, develops the characters, and then simply and methodically doles out gems of tension until the unexpected (and sometimes expected) climax. So one would imagine a work of nonfiction by him to be a brilliant narrative woven not from his imagination, but from the truth as he is able to discern it.
The story of the trial, conviction, sentence of death – and eventual exoneration – of Ron Williamson for the murder of Debbie Carter in Ada, Oklahoma is a story with all the elements of a fascinating novel. As Grisham says in the Author’s Note: “Not in my most creative moment could I conjure up a story as rich and as layered as Ron’s.”
Grisham starts The Innocent Man – perhaps attempting to emulate Capote’s classic beginning of In Cold Blood – with a walk through Ada, the small town of the book’s title. Unfortunately, the description is (excuse the pun) rather pedestrian.
However, despite the bad beginning, the story that follows is fascinating and one that must be told. It is a tale of small town prosecutors and cops who fabricate evidence, ignore reality (and the real killer) and ruin the life of Ron Williamson – a mentally fragile ex-baseball star and former hometown hero — and his acquaintance and co-defendant Dennis Fritz. Grisham’s descriptions of Williamson’s deteriorating mental health, the sham of his trial, the horror of living on Death Row, and the pain suffered by him and his family (who are unable to help him get the help he needs) is, unfortunately, not unique in our criminal justice system. Williamson and Fritz were eventually exonerated and Williamson released from Death Row to join the 123 other men and women in America who had previously been wrongfully convicted, sentenced to death, and then exonerated since 1973. Since their release, another 33 men and women (including Bryan Stevenson’s clients Walter McMillian and Roy Hinson whose stories he tells in Just Mercy) have been released as well.
Grisham’s outrage at the injustice of Williamson’s case shows in his many rather sarcastic asides. But it is an outrage that is clearly genuine — and if Grisham’s celebrity helps to ensure that more Americans learn of how innocent men end up on death row, perhaps one day the number of wrongful convictions can be reduced.