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.