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10 April 2008

A Compelling Work of Non-Fiction - From The Master of Crime Thrillers

The Innocent Man
John Grisham
DoubleDay Publishers
(A division of Random House)
352 Pages

The Innocent Man is author John Grisham’s first work of non-fiction. In an interview with Bill Moyers on WGBH, John Grisham confessed that he had never thought seriously about writing non-fiction. “I'm having too much fun with the novels. It's a whole lot more fun — a whole lot more easier to create stuff in the-- than to go research a bunch of facts and have to do the hard work. And I try to avoid hard work if at all possible. But I had to go do a lot of research.”

The idea for the book was born when Grisham first read Ron Williamson’s obituary in The New York Times. By the time he spoke to Williamson’s sisters, he knew he had a book on his hands. As he states in the Author’s Notes, he could never have come up with a story as rich and varied as Ron Williamson’s.

The story has all the compelling elements that fans of Grisham’s legal thrillers are looking for – a talented baseball player whose professional career does not quite take off, his wrongful arrest on charges of rape and murder, his mental illness, the near execution, the exoneration after 11 years on the death row, the insanity and finally his death at the age of 51.

Ron Williamson had a successful high school baseball career in Asher, Oklahoma, and dreams of making it big as a professional, like his hero Mikey Mantle. A recurring arm injury and alcoholic tendencies quickly brought his budding career to a halt. The professional setback was just the beginning, as his personal life began to unravel. Alcohol, drugs, women, they were bad habits that he did not try very hard to break. His mood swings were the first signals of bipolar disorder that he would struggle with for the rest of his life. The cops in his hometown knew him as a troublemaker. Ada is a small town. When a young girl, 21-year-old Debra Carter was raped and murdered in 1982, the whole town was shocked. When another girl went missing in April 1984, the police came under severe pressure to find the killers.

Grisham also looks at the parallel story of Dennis Fritz, who was wrongfully imprisoned for the same crime. Without any solid proof, the police were to decide that Ron Williamson, and his accomplice Dennis Fritz, were the murderers. There was no proof that either of the two men knew Debra Carter, no fingerprint evidence, no eyewitnesses.

All they had was Williamson’s reputation, thoroughly faulty polygraph evidence, and the testimony of convicts, Glen Gore, whom later evidence proved to be the actual murderer. The evidence against Fritz was even slimmer. Fritz was guilty only by association. He knew Williamson, had a record of petty crime and since the police felt that Carter’s injuries was more suited to two assailants, and they needed another suspect, Fritz was implicated.

Inexplicably, the police had ignored the their star witness, even though he was known to have been the last person seen with the victim. Having once fixated on Williamson as the murderer, both the police and the district attorney were disdainful of any evidence that did not match their pre-conceived notion of guilt.

What is more shocking than the miscarriage of justice that cost two men their freedom was the complicity of the officials involved in proving them guilty. Evidence was suppressed, the trial was a farce, and law enforcement officers abused the law to serve their own ends. It was only in 1999, that DNA evidence finally cleared both Williamson and Fritz of any involvement in the crime. Both Williamson and Fritz were released without regret, without apology, and without compensation. Exoneration came too late for Williamson. He died five years later, a broken and shattered man, at the age of 51.

Grisham says that the book was written to show people how wrongful convictions can, and do, happen. It was researching this book that exposed Grisham, a former lawyer, to ‘the world of wrongful convictions’. He raises questions about wrongful convictions, incompetent police work and a prosecution that is willing to railroad defendants, and his account of criminal justice in America may shock you.

He argues vehemently against the death penalty, believing that it kills the innocent and the guilty. However, he has no sympathy for violent criminals. As he says in the interview with Moyers, "I'm not in favor of the death penalty. But I'm in favor of locking these people (violent criminals) away in maximum-security units where they can never get out. They can never escape. They can never be paroled.”

If you are used to John Grisham’s fiction, The Innocent Man may not be your cup of tea. It is relatively slow-paced, heavy on detail, and sometimes repetitive. The narrative is bogged down in a mire of detail about the conditions on death row, the nation’s mental health programmes, even other cases of wrongful conviction. It is a powerful work that could have done with tighter editing. However, it is still a creditable step into non-fiction from a popular author of crime thrillers.

Copyright: Anuradha Warrier
www.domain-b.com 2008

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