Thursday, June 9, 2016

Review of "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town" by John Grisham

In this non-fiction book John Grisham tells the shocking and disheartening story of two men who were wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in Oklahoma.

Ron Williamson, born in 1953, grew up in a loving Christian family in Ada, Oklahoma. He was a star on his high school baseball team and played for several professional minor league teams, hoping to make it to the majors. Injuries and health problems shattered these dreams however, and a short unsuccessful marriage added to Ron's woes. By his mid-20s Ron was back in Ada, carousing, drinking heavily, philandering, and starting to show signs of mental illness. At about this time he became friends with Dennis Fritz, who became his partying buddy.

Then in 1982 a young woman named Debbie Carter was brutally raped and murdered in her apartment in Ada. The police did a less than thorough investigation and - in a major instance of bungling - gave a pass to Glen Gore, who had been harassing Debbie and was known to be violent toward women. It turns out the police (more or less) ignored Glen as a suspect because a few cops were doing drug deals with Glen at the time.

In any case the investigation dragged on and finally, in 1988, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were arrested and charged with the rape and murder of Debbie Carter. There was no credible physical evidence against the men but prosecutor Bill Peterson lined up (and coached) a series of mendacious jailhouse snitches - which resulted in convictions. Dennis was sentenced to life in prison and Ron was given the death penalty. Grisham gives a detailed account of the 'investigation' and a play by play description of the trials, and it's frightening to see the lengths Peterson and the police would go to to secure 'confessions' and convictions.

Grisham then details Ron's years on death row as his lawyers file appeal after appeal. By this time Ron was severely mentally ill as well as as frustrated and depressed by his wrongful conviction. Moreover, death row was located in an old prison facility that was boiling in summer and freezing in winter, with nasty guards who delighted in tormenting disturbed Ron.

To cut to the chase: twelve years after Ron and Dennis's convictions DNA evidence showed that the imprisoned men were innocent and that Glen Gore was guilty. Ron and Dennis were released from prison but DA Peterson - in a major demonstration of stubborn hubris - refused to apologize. In fact, he indicated that he still thought of the two men as suspects and might even retry them if he found more evidence. Of course this preyed on Ron's already troubled mind. Nevertheless, six years later Gore was finally convicted of Pamela's murder.

The book is interesting and informative...but also sad and disheartening. I felt angry that the Ada police and DA Peterson were not held to account for their outrageous behavior. In fact a google search revealed that Peterson tried to sue Grisham and other people who wrote books about the case, claiming they libelled him (as if!) However, Peterson was routinely unsuccessful with these lawsuits.

On the negative side the book is overly long and goes into too much detail about every aspect of Ron's life. Grisham details all of Ron's childhood/teen sports (he played baseball and basketball); his antics to get his parents and sister to pay for nice clothes, a car, and expensive sports camps; Ron's many unsuccessful experiences with minor league baseball teams; his injuries and rehabilitations; Ron's bar-hopping and picking up women; his horrible years on death row; the round of talk shows and celebrations when Ron and Dennis are released from prison; and finally Ron's ongoing physical decline and eventual death in a nursing home. It's just a little too much.

Still, this cautionary tale about justice gone wrong is worth reading and instructive.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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