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

The Innocent Man by John Grisham
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Jun 06, 10

bookshelves: grown-up-stuff
Read in January, 2006

If you're going to read this, don't stop there. Go online and read Bill Petersen's account as well. It's only fair. And after all, "fair" is what this book is all about, right?http://www.billpetersondistrictattorn...

The Innocent Man alternates between a compelling account of a murder investigation and a tedious account of a man's stupidity/petty criminal activity/insanity.

I had great respect for John Grisham until I read both this book and responses to the book by Ada prosecutor Bill Petersen, who has legal documents to back up his claims that Grisham ignored key facts in the case. I assume he did this to make his book more compelling, but I felt he was dishonest in his portrayal of the "facts", and because of that this book isn't entirely "non-fiction".

I still respect Grisham's writing ability, and will continue to enjoy his crime/law novels, but I honestly feel he unjustifiably did a great disservice to Petersen and the other investigators on the case in order to strengthen his argument that Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were railroaded by corrupt officials. Despite Grisham's claims in the novel, and while there was indeed an injustice done to Williamson and Fritz, the facts in the case show that they were not viciously prosecuted by officials who refused to see the truth. It's just not true.
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Comments (showing 1-17 of 17) (17 new)

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message 1: by Shelley (new)

Shelley Thank you for writing this. I actually met DA Petersen years ago and he was a very decent and honest man. The men who were originally convicted of this horrible crime were not railroaded, but actually presented as the most likely suspects at the time. Their history and behavior is what made them the suspects in the first place.


message 2: by babyhippoface (last edited Jun 07, 2010 09:29PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

babyhippoface It's a shame that everyone who reads this book doesn't read Petersen's side of the story as well. So many people took Grisham at his word, and now have a distorted and ugly view of Ada, Oklahoma and its law enforcement officials. What Grisham did in this book was omit many very important facts and details, present events out of order so they appeared to have happened in a different order, assume convicted murderers were telling the truth and law enforcement officials were lying, and more. He misrepresented the facts, and the more I think about it, the angrier I get. I am very disappointed in him. He was clearly trying to push an anti-death penalty agenda, and he manipulated the "facts" to tell a story that just didn't happen the way he said it did. It's just wrong.


message 3: by Shelley (new)

Shelley I agree 100%!


babyhippoface And you know, this title is really inaccurate, too: Ron Williamson was a lot of things, but "innocent" was not one of them!


Shawna Five days from the needle and 11 years in a hellhole deteriorating with no mental health treatment, being taunted by sadistic guards...because it was the best information Bill Petersen had at the time? Oh well, honest mistake, I guess it's all cool then. We have to hold men like Petersen who are playing God with people's lives to a higher standard. Petersen may have meant well but he very nearly got a man who didn't commit a murder killed. Does that haunt him or does he still believe Williamson murdered Carter in spite of the DNA?


babyhippoface Shawna, I can't answer your question because I don't know Bill Petersen personally. I would assume if he and other prosecutors around the country are haunted by anything, it would be the faces of the innocent victims for whom they seek justice.

I do not believe Bill Petersen was "playing God". It's his job to prosecute suspected criminals with the evidence available. Sometimes they have a good amount of evidence with which to work, and sometimes they do not. Whichever is the case, they are forced to work with what they have.

Regardless, that's not the point of my review. John Grisham deliberately misrepresented and/or omitted key facts in the case in order to sensationalize the case and support a personal agenda. There is documented proof that not only did he include misleading and incorrect information, he knew it was misleading and incorrect, and included it anyway. In essence, he lied to the public. Williamson and Fritz were not railroaded by corrupt officials. It's just not true, and Grisham knew it, but he wrote it as though it was truth. That's my problem with this book. It's a fictionalized personal agenda disguised as non-fiction. I encourage you to go to http://www.billpetersondistrictattorn... and read the facts for yourself.


message 7: by Shelley (new)

Shelley I have met Bill Petersen and he is an honorable man, who was unjustly villified by John Grisham. Working with the evidence they had at the time, Williamson and Fritz were convicted not by DA Petersen, but by a jury of their peers. To say that he "nearly got a man who didn't commit a murder killed" is grossly exaggerated and erroneous.

Further, I knew many of the Correctional Officers who "guarded" the inmates while they were incarcerated. It is unfair to categorize them all as sadistic or to say that they taunted the inmates. That is a generalization that has come from people who have absolutely no knowledge of the true workings of the prison system. Correctional Officers are - by and large - professionals who treat the inmates with courtesy and respect whenever possible. While I have known a few bad seeds who did taunt inmates, they were few and far between.


Christopher I happen to be teaching "The Innocent Man" in my English class as part of a semester where criminal justice is the focus. I also happened to find Bill Petersen's website, and he writes really well. It's what makes him a good lawyer in court. However, having Petersen's version in mind as I reread Grisham's account, there are just too many things Petersen did that was an injustice after he was convinced that Williamson and Fritz were Debbie Carter’s killers. I’m sure he convinced himself that his techniques and shortcuts were in the name of locking away two terrible men.
For instance, I know in his heart of hearts, Petersen had believed that the two men seen in silhouette by a witness hosing themselves in the middle of the night were Williamson and Fritz, supposedly washing off Carter’s blood. Because the police believed that Williamson and Fritz did it, Petersen did, too, unaware of bad data. However, it was Petersen's job to determine what was bad data such as all those jailhouse snitches. I'm sure Petersen and the police felt that if Williamson and Fritz didn't kill Debbie Carter, they probably had done something else, so they were getting bad people off the street. What they did was get a good and loved teacher (Fritz) out of society and a nice but skewed man (i.e. someone mentally ill) locked away, leaving the real killers of Debbie Carter out to do more damage. I don't feel sorry for Bill Petersen for what he did to these two men.


babyhippoface You bring up some interesting thoughts, but the point of my review is that John Grisham knowingly ignored key facts in the case and deliberately misplaced events in the timeline in what I assume was an attempt to make his book more compelling. What he did was dishonest. He lied to the public and labeled this book "non-fiction" when in fact, it was not.


message 10: by Shelley (new)

Shelley Christopher wrote: "I happen to be teaching "The Innocent Man" in my English class as part of a semester where criminal justice is the focus. I also happened to find Bill Petersen's website, and he writes really well...."

I'm curious as to whether or not you actually read DA Peterson's website fully. If you had you would know that: 1. Fritz was not a "good and loved teacher", but was a suspect in previous assaults on women, among other things; 2. Fritz was not "a nice but skewed man" - see #1; 3. Mentally ill does not mean the same as criminally insane - many people are mentally ill and still competent to stand trial and many are incarcerated; 4. The "jailhouse snitches" did not testify as alleged in the novel - their testimony was pretty much laid out, some verbatim, on the website, and was not "bad data"; 5. A District Attorney's job is not to "determine what was bad data", it is to take the evidence presented to him and build a case. When seemingly solid evidence is presented, it is not the DA's job to question it - perhaps a course in civic or basic criminal law is in order; 6. DA Petersen did not take "shortcuts", nor were his techniques unethical; 7. DA Petersen's "version", as you put it, is the unvarnished truth, while Grisham's is fictionalized beyond recognition. To say, "having Petersen's version in mind as I reread Grisham's account, there are just too many things Petersen did that was an injustice after he was convinced that Williamson and Fritz were Debbie Carter’s killers." Basically, you admit to rereading Grisham's fictionalized version of events with a renewed bias toward DA Petersen, because you believe him to be the bad guy - just as Grisham wanted; 8. Being able to "write well" is a bonus, but is not what makes one a good lawyer; 9. The hair analysis used at the time was state of the art, but was not as exact a science as was being touted by the scientists - this was not something that was known at the time. DA Petersen and the police were going with the best scientific evidence available at the time; 10. DA Petersen and the police did not feel "that if Williamson and Fritz didn't kill Debbie Carter, they had probably done something else, so they were getting bad people off the street". Such a claim by you is ludicrous. Had you read the website, you would know this was completely untrue; 11. You stated, "I know in his heart of hearts, Petersen had believed that the two men seen in silhouette by a witness hosing themselves in the middle of the night were Williamson and Fritz, supposedly washing off Carter’s blood." Unless you know DA Petersen personally, which you obviously do not, you have no way of knowing what was "in his heart of hearts". Even if you are trying to give him the benefit of the doubt by this statement, you are doing him a grave disservice. 12. If you had read DA Petersen's website, you would know that the police and DA Petersen did not "get a good and loved teacher (Fritz) out of society and a nice but skewed man (i.e. someone mentally ill) locked away, leaving the real killers of Debbie Carter out to do more damage." In fact, there were no "killers" of Ms. Carter, but ONE killer, who was later brought to trial and convicted. 13. DA Petersen was pro-active in this case, even after conviction, requesting the DNA testing prior to any requests from the defense team and well before The Innocence Project ever got involved in this case. In fact, they only became actively involved three months before the cases were dismissed. 14. You don't have to feel sorry for DA Petersen because he did not knowingly and maliciously prosecute anyone, nor does he want or need anyone's pity. He did his job. He did not convict the Williamson and Fritz, a jury of their peers did. DA Petersen is an honorable man who has been horribly and forever maligned by John Grisham.


message 11: by Don (new) - rated it 4 stars

Don S. I agree with you for the most part. I did read Peterson's rebuttal and it is clear that Grisham did miss things, misrepresent some, and exaggerate others. At the end of the day, however, even with the corrections by Peterson, the story is still a horrifying story of shoddy police work and it was very clear to me that Peterson and the authorities decided (perhaps logically) that Williamson was the most likely suspect and then did some very suspect things in order to convict. There was not one single piece of physical evidence against Williamson or his alleged accomplice.
Peterson's rebuttal is mostly verifiable, as you point out, but not totally. He also took some lines from the book out of context, like when he quote Grisham as having wrote that one of Williamson's rape accusers was "looking for it" which was clearly stated as being the impression that Williamson's friends had, not that of the author. He mentions that the payment plan they gave to the snitch for her bad checks was the common procedure, and it surely was. But Peterson never rebutted the claim that although she never paid, nothing was done. He also mentions in at one point that Williamson's defense never tried to disprove the so-called expert witnesses for the defense, but never mentions Grisham's assertion that they asked for funds for such and were denied them by the court. He also never mentioned the claim made by the man eventually convicted of the murder that he was involved in a drug operation with a crooked cop (who Grisham asserts was later convicted of just such drug involvement.) If all that is true, it would certainly explain why the real killer was ignored.
While Peterson is given too much of the vilification, he was still a part of a terribly bad case. The police, the court itself, and his lousy defense are al least as much to blame, if not more so.
Perhaps Grisham should stick with fiction from now on though as it's clear that he was a bit out of his element on this book.


message 12: by Hina (new) - rated it 3 stars

Hina Wow! Imagine being portrayed wrong in a book and put up a website to explain your side of the story and urge people to "spread" the truth. And compare that to ruining 12 years of two innocent people, causing distress to both the victims and their families. I have no respect for Bill Petersen as a lawyer.


babyhippoface Hina, I see your point, but that has nothing to do with the fact that Grisham deliberately manipulated the timeline and misrepresented facts to make his book more compelling. And that's absolutely wrong if you're going to call your work non-fiction.


Jared Byers Are you Bill?
@babyhippoface


message 16: by Samantha (new)

Samantha Duerksen The link doesn't work? Also Peterson tried to sue Grisham for defamation, but Grisham won. The judge said, “Where the justice system so manifestly failed and innocent people were imprisoned for 11 years (and one almost put to death),” wrote Judge White for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, “it is necessary to analyze and criticize our judicial system (and the actors involved) so that past mistakes do not become future ones.” Truth.


babyhippoface I assume he has taken down the website since I wrote my review.


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