James Korsmo's Reviews > The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

The Innocent Man by John Grisham
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Aug 03, 11


Grisham's latest legal thriller, The Innocent Man, is a work of non-fiction. In it, Grisham brings to life the story of Ron Williamson, a troubled young baseball star who is convicted for the brutal rape and murder in Ada, Oklahoma. Grisham follows this true story of a brutal rape and murder in a small town. Progress on the investigation is slow, but finally, after a couple years, suspicion comes to rest on two men, Ron Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz, and they are arrested for the murder. And after a closely-watched trial, are convicted, and Ron is sentenced to death. Meanwhile, the killer, whose name was in the police record from the first night, still hasn't even been interviewed by the police.

It is sometimes said that truth is stranger than fiction, and this book illustrates it. One would continually get the feeling that Grisham was stretching things too far--police wouldn't be so misguided; one person's life couldn't be so tragic--except that it is true. The crime scene investigator exhumes the victim's body a couple of years after her death to try a new match with a bloody palm print found at the scene. The first time it was compared with the victim, shortly after her death, it was ruled that it couldn't be hers. But after a couple years, the examiner decides that the smudged palm print does in fact match with the print of the exhumed body (meaning it's not the print of a suspect, which is significant since it doesn't match up with any of their suspects, including Ron or Dennis), and go on to arrest their two suspects. The miscarriage of justice continues throughout the trial phase, with hearsay and supposition leading to conviction and death sentence.

Only after many years in jail, and a very perceptive legal clerk and justice finally noticing the weakness of the case as it makes its way through the mandatory appeals process does the truth come out. And Ron, a man who has lived for years in horrible conditions on death row, is finally freed.

Grisham's book is a good one, and it can favorably stand up to comparison with is fiction. But it also raises some important questions. First, Ron wasn't able to afford the quality of defense that could counter the resources of the prosecution, especially when it came to expert witnesses and forensic evidence, so how does our legal system ensure a fair trial. Second, what do we do with people who are innocent but convicted? And, even more importantly, how do we insure that innocent people don't end up on death row (at this same time another pair from the same town ended up on death row while also innocent of their crimes)? It's some good food for thought about the death penalty itself . . . what is the price for killing innocent people? Is it too high for the state and for our society?

The Innocent Man is a great read, detailing a dramatic and often painful miscarriage of justice in a small town. It raises great issues and also helps get into the life of one troubled man in a troubled town.
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