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

The Innocent Man by John Grisham
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Feb 02, 10

Read in November, 2006

The Innocent Man, by novelist John Grisham, is an important and dispiriting work. At one level, it shows how the American system of justice can, on occasion, malfunction. At another level, it suggests that we ought to have some skepticism about our law enforcement system, since there are certain incentives to actors in the judicial system to twist facts to produce a favored outcome.

This is a book that focuses on a trumped up murder charge being lodged against Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz. The former was given the death sentence. The infuriating aspect of this work is that the police botched the investigation, did not pursue a more obvious suspect, and misused their investigative powers to bring the two to trial. The prosecutor is also portrayed as an opportunist, who had an extremely weak case and, nonetheless, pushed forward. Furthermore, he violated established Supreme Court guidelines on evidence in the process.

This is also the story of dreams destroyed. Williamson was looked at as, potentially, the "next Mickey Mantle," based on his high school baseball exploits in Oklahoma. After a wonderful high school baseball career, he was signed to a contract by the Oakland Athletics. However, he found it difficult to hit professional pitchers, he started drinking and partying to the point where whatever natural skills that he had were not up to the challenges of professional baseball, and the early signs of his mental illness began to manifest themselves. He tried a comeback in the New York Yankees farm system, his dream team for which Mickey Mantle had played. But he could not hit professional pitchers--even in the minor leagues--and he had a sore arm that prevented success as a pitcher. At the same time, his mental problems began to emerge further and make success problematic under the best of circumstances.

He drifted back to Oklahoma. A violent murder was committed in his hometown of Ada, and he became a suspect (along with Dennis Fritz). Desperate for an arrest, after some years of failure in apprehending the perpetrator (and an embarrassing fiasco in prosecuting the wrong persons in another case), the local police and prosecutor trumped up a case against these two. Later, the city paid a heavy price as a result of a successful law suit on behalf of the two falsely convicted victims.

Eventually, the system exonerated the two convicted men. However, Williamson ended up, as a result of his mental illness, declining and dying. This is a tale of tragedy, of police misuse of authority, of a prosecutor who ignored professional norms, of defense attorneys who were uneven. And an innocent person ended up on death row. This does not represent America's finest hour in law enforcement; it reminds us that there are times when innocent people can be condemned to death. It raises questions that need to be discussed widely in this society. It demonstrates why we should all wish law enforcement and judicial actors to be forced to "follow the rules" in criminal cases, to prevent this situation from occurring.
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