A real-life judicial tragedy, and a triumph for Grisham
In 1959, Truman Capote read a blurb in The New York Times about the murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas and became fascinated by the skeletal details of the massacre. He spent...
The Plain Dealer
"The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town"
by John Grisham
Doubleday, 368 pp., $28.95
In 1959, Truman Capote read a blurb in The New York Times about the murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas and became fascinated by the skeletal details of the massacre. He spent the better part of the next decade fleshing out the tragic story, writing the watershed "In Cold Blood."
John Grisham was similarly intrigued when he came across a Times obituary in 2004 — "Ronald Williamson, Freed from Death Row, Dies at 51," the headline read. The former Mississippi trial lawyer made a few phone calls and decided he "had a book on his hands."
"The Innocent Man" is the result. It is Grisham's barnstorming comeback from last year's "The Broker," a spy novel set in Italy that congealed on the page like cold baked ziti. The author has returned to the place he knows best — the cramped, rustic American courthouse. "Innocent Man" is his first work of nonfiction, and Grisham makes the transition comfortably.
Before his descent into hell, Ronnie Williamson was a boy bursting with big-league promise, the next Mickey Mantle, as folks around Ada, Okla., liked to say.
Drafted in 1971 by the Oakland A's months after graduating from high school, he embodied the whispered prayers of the old oil town — one of their own, after a perfunctory stint in the minors, was headed for The Show. "He was eighteen years old, but with a round baby face and bangs down to his eyes he looked no more than fifteen."
But his love of strip clubs and hooch was as strong as his swing.
By 24, he'd wrecked his marriage to a local beauty queen and ruined his shoulder, too.
Stripped of his uniform, Williamson was either horribly depressed or filled with manic energy. He moved from job to job and was twice accused of rape, but none of the charges stuck. What his devoted family didn't realize was that Ronnie was slowly losing his mind, beset by undiagnosed manic depression and schizophrenia.
The hometown hero had turned resident creep, so when 21-year-old Debbie Carter was found raped and strangled in her Ada apartment in 1982, "it was inevitable that the police would find their way to Ron Williamson."
What shouldn't have been inevitable, Grisham argues, is the perversion of justice that followed.
Though witnesses saw the victim arguing with a man hours before she was killed, that man was never pursued as a suspect. Instead, detectives homed in on Williamson and his sometime pal, Dennis Fritz, a widowed science teacher.
A bloody handprint on the bedroom wall didn't match Williamson or Fritz — nothing at the scene did — but the lack of hard evidence didn't stop prosecutors. They convicted the men using a bogus confession cobbled together from one of Williamson's tortured dreams, the perjured testimony of jailhouse snitches and "the junk science" of hair analysis.
Williamson was clearly mentally ill — he had to be dragged yowling from the courtroom — but no one consulted a psychiatrist to see whether he was competent to stand trial.
Grisham is a great storyteller but an uninspired writer — he has none of Capote's weird, stark lyricism — but his spare, direct style serves him well here. He expertly dissects each judicial and constitutional outrage with cool precision.
Fritz was sentenced to life in prison; Williamson was sent to Oklahoma's death row, where he was denied medical care and tormented for sport. Were it not for a canny federal judge who ordered a new trial, Williamson likely would have died by lethal injection, his friend Fritz imprisoned forever.
After DNA proved Williamson and Fritz hadn't killed Debbie Carter, the prosecutor announced that he still considered them suspects.
"This is not a problem peculiar to Oklahoma, far from it," Grisham writes. "Wrongful convictions occur every month in every state in this country, and the reasons are all varied and all the same — bad police work, junk science, faulty eyewitness identifications, bad defense lawyers, lazy prosecutors, arrogant prosecutors."
In telling this story, the king of the legal thriller has put a human face on capital punishment and gambled with his audience. Book clubs expecting a breezy, true-crime read will find a darker product, a well-crafted, meticulous study of a broken system. Grisham asks a nagging question: If wrongful convictions happen all the time, how do we know the poison is flowing into the real killer's arm?
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.