Monday, April 14, 2008

The Innocent Man by John Grisham

Eleven years after their arrest for the rape/murder of Debbie Carter, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were exonerated using DNA testing. Not only did the testing prove that Williamson and Fritz were not involved, but that the one "eyewitness" was the actual killer (this isn't a spoiler - Grisham gives this away from the beginning of the book). Their entire conviction hinged on the testimony of the actual killer and snitches looking for a deal to get less time in prison.

Ron Williamson spent 11 years on death row and never once change his story of innocence. He nearly went out of his mind in jail, having already had severe mental disorders prior to his arrest. During his trial not one person - not the prosecution, the judge, nor Williamson's own lawyer - raised the questions of his competency to stand trial despite a 10-year history of psychological problems ranging from manic depression to schizophrenia.

In The Innocent Man, John Grisham tells Williamson's story in a way that's understandable for laypeople. He brings up a number of questions the detectives, judge, prosecutor and jurors should have been asking before convicting Williamson and Fritz. In addition, he gives a detailed account of two other men arrested by the same detectives and tried in the same court. Both were also found guilty and are innocent, but they are still behind bars (www.wardandfontenot.com).

Grisham, with his famous name and storytelling abilities, is bringing awareness to an issue that few acknowledge - our justice system isn't always just.

Unexpectedly, this book gave me reason to question the death penalty (description of death row and lethal injection given on pgs. 214 - 216). I have to wonder how many innocent men are put to death each year in the United States. At the same time I have to believe that the science used today to convict killers is more accurate than in previous decades. It really made me appreciate what a huge discovery DNA has been.

Unfortunately though, DNA testing can often be expensive and isn't available for those already behind bars unless they can get a lawyer to believe in their innocence. Fortunately, The Innocence Project (www.innocenceproject.org) has been working for more than 10 years to free innocent men from prison using DNA testing. More than 200 men have been freed thanks to The Innocence Project.

I highly recommend this book to anyone concerned about our legal system. It gives some great tips on what to do when being questioned by the police (ask for a lawyer!) and information about Miranda rights and the fifth amendment. Also, it's just a great story and a quick read. The injustice of it will stay with you though. In the author's notes, Grisham says, "Not in my most creative moment could I conjure up a story as rich and layered as Ron's." Nor as unbelievable. But here it is, a true story of injustice and the problems with our justice system.

8 comments:

Chason said...

I saw a special on Dateline on the county prosector "The Innocent Man" talks about. He is extremely defensive during the interview because he feels that Grisham, who he sees as an "outsider," has smeared his reputation, but there is another book written about a similar case involving two men (which you note in your blog) arraigned and tried by the same prosecutor and convicted with similar circumstantial evidence (including the same "jail house" witness). Grisham is using his power as an extremely popular author to shed light on the injustices perpetrated by this crooked prosecutor and I think his decision to do so was a corageous one. I haven't read it yet, but I'm sure I'll get around to it one day.

Trish said...

Ohhh, I just skimmed your review because I'll be reading this one next month for the Non-Fiction Five challenge. My husband just finished it last night at 4 in the morning! Glad you recommend it.

LisaMM said...

I haven't read a Grisham book in years, but this one sounds incredible, so it's going on my list. Thanks!

Becca said...

Trish: I hope you stop back and tell us what you thought of it once you finish.

Lisa: I hadn't read one in a few years myself, which is why I picked this one up. I hate to admit it, but I didn't even know this was non-fiction when I ordered it from the library. At least it turned out to be a good one. I hope you enjoy it :-)

Barbara's Journey Toward Justice said...

Thought you may be interested in this from my blog.
DA Bill Peterson Suing The Innocent Man Dennis Fritz For Emotional Distress

Dennis Fritz, who wrote the book, "Journey Toward Justice", is named as a defendant in a libel lawsuit along with , John Grisham, author of "The Innocent Man", Robert Mayer, author of "The Dreams of Ada", and all their publishers, and New York City attorney Barry Scheck, Fritz's former lawyer who once represented Fritz and is co-director of The Innocence Project. With the aid of Barry Scheck and irrefutable DNA evidence, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were exonerated in 1999.

Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson and Gary Rogers, a former agent for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation filed the libel lawsuit.

The lawsuit, seeks at least $75,000 compensation and demands a jury trial. Peterson and Rogers were instrumental in the conviction of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz in the murder of Debbie Sue Carter in Ada, Oklahoma in 1982.
The conviction was later overturned on DNA evidence pursued by the Innocence Project, which Scheck heads, Dennis Fritz was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit and spent 12 years in prison. Part of the lawsuit claims the defendants conspired to commit libel against the plaintiffs, generate publicity for self interest by placing them in a false light and intentionally inflicting emotional distress upon them.

So... Prosecutor with the help of Gary Rogers sent 2 innocent men, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson to prison for 12 years. Both Innocent men freed by DNA evaluation of crime scene evidence. Innocent man, Dennis Fritz writes book about his experiences. Prosecutor and Gary Rogers sue the innocent man they wrongfully sent to prison and Prosecutor and Rogers sue for intentionally inflicting emotional distress upon them. Only in America Folks...

Becca said...

Barbara: Wow! I can't believe that guy's suing. It's not even like he lost his job or anything. As of the writing of the book he was STILL the DA in that town. I guess he figures if he wins the case, he'll have some consolation; a way of saying, "See I wasn't wrong." Unbelievable.

Angilaz said...

laypeople.

Becca said...

Oh Angela. What am I ever going to do with you?