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BOOK REVIEW: Grisham’s ‘The Innocent Man’ Attacks American Prosecutorial System – As Readable as Any of His 18 Novels – and It’s All True

Posted by kinchendavid on January 12, 2007

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV – Are we as a nation “stuck on stupid” – to use the phrase popularized in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 — or am I just getting even more paranoid than usual? John Grisham’s magnificent “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town” (Doubleday, 368 pages, photos, $28.95) is his first venture into true crime and it’s a winner.

It’s also a best seller, as well it should be, because this book is nothing less than an indictment of the American adversarial, prosecutorial system – something we’re seeing in Durham, N.C. with D.A. Mike Nifong, just as much as in Grisham’s Ada, Oklahoma with D.A. Bill Peterson. Call it D.A.s Gone Wild.

As far as I’m concerned, Grisham can write true crime from here on: This book reads like one of his novels and serves to educate the reader about the dirty big secret that is the American criminal justice system. As a reporter who has covered trials, including murder trials, first off let me say I’m glad I live in West Virginia, which abolished the death penalty more than 40 years ago.

Still, even West Virginia is saddled with all the outdated paraphernalia of the justice system we inherited from the British – including grand juries, which the Brits wisely abolished in 1933. There’s an old saying that a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich if a clever D.A. wants it and it’s certainly true in phenomenally corrupt Pontotoc County, of which Ada (population 16,000) is the county seat.

Maybe “The Innocent Man” should really be called “The Innocent Men,” since it involves the prosecution of both Ron Williamson, the first player chosen from the state of Oklahoma in the 1971 Major League baseball draft, and his friend Dennis Fritz. To give him full credit, Grisham – who had dreams of major league glory as a youth — devotes plenty of coverage to Fritz, exonerated on April 15, 1999 along with Williamson for the 1982 rape and murder of Ada resident Debra Sue Carter.

Grisham and Williamson are almost contemporaries – born in 1955 and 1953, respectively — and the author has acknowledged that while Williamson had the talent to become a major leaguer, Grisham didn’t. So he went on to become a lawyer and phenomenally best selling writer of 18 novels, arguably — along with fellow lawyer/writer Scott Turow of Chicago — one of the best in the business.

Throughout “The Innocent Man” Grisham writes with scorn and loathing of the prosecution team, headed by D.A. Bill Peterson, who – amazingly – still has the job of prosecuting alleged criminals in the 35,000 population Pontotoc County in southeastern Oklahoma.

Grisham tells us that Peterson has never acknowledged his errors of judgment and his bias toward the two innocent men, Williamson and Fritz, or his failure to go after Glen Gore, the man who from the start was the most logical suspect in the case and who was finally prosecuted — by a special prosecutor, not Peterson — and sentenced to life without parole for the crime just last year.

About that bit of praise for West Virginia and its abolition of the death penalty: It’s a surprise to people from my twin home states – Michigan, where I was born and Illinois, where I grew to adulthood – that so often derided West Virginia has advanced closer toward civilization as Europeans see it than Michigan and Illinois, both of which have death penalties. I’ve worked on newspapers in Indiana (death penalty), Wisconsin (no death penalty) and California (death penalty), so the whole red state-blue state concept is out of whack as far as putting people to death.

Williamson’s dreams of reaching “The Show” – the major leagues – ended six years after he was drafted by the Oakland A’s, done in by injuries and the riotous style of living that brought him to the attention of Peterson in the first place. The 3 Ds I call them – Drinking, Drugs and Dames – combined with signs of the mental illness that probably afflicted Williamson from his youth but wasn’t detected until later for a child growing up in a fundamentalist Christian environment that dismissed psychiatry.

Williamson, whose idol was fellow Oklahoman Mickey Mantle, kept on boozing and womanizing and he moved into his mother’s house, where he was living when 21-year-old cocktail waitress Debra Carter was raped and murdered on Dec. 7, 1982. Williamson and his college-educated friend, a former teacher named Dennis Fritz, were suspects from the beginning, for reasons unknown to everyone but Peterson and the local cops.

Williamson and Fritz were indicted in 1987 and quickly convicted of capital murder, with Williamson ending up on death row at the state prison in McAlester, not far from Ada, and Fritz receiving a life sentence. Williamson’s main court-appointed attorney was a blind older lawyer named Barney Ward, who was paid a total of $3,600 for his valiant but futile attempt to defend “The Innocent Man.”

There was no physical evidence, Grisham writes and the two were convicted on the basis of “junk science” – including hair analysis that was so flawed as to be criminal itself – and the testimony of jailhouse snitches, a tactic indulged in to the fullest in Ada.

Eventually, DNA evidence – or the lack of a DNA connection to the crime and the two men – resulted in their exoneration. Much credit is due the good guys and gals, Grisham writes: people like Innocence Project lawyer Barry Scheck (www.innocenceproject.org), Oklahomans Mark Barrett, his main appeal lawyer, Judge Frank Seay, Jim Payne, Judge Tom Landrith, Janet Chesley, Bill Luker and Kim Marks of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.

Grisham found out about the case through a New York Times obituary of 51-year-old Ron Williamson in 2004 (Fritz is alive and living as far from Ada, OK as he can get). Grisham, who lives in Virginia and Mississippi, was turned on to a now-out-of-print book by Robert Mayer called “The Dreams of Ada: A True Story of Murder, Obsession, and a Small Town” by residents of the town and other Oklahomans. It deals with many of the same people covered in “The Innocent Man” and Grisham credits Mayer’s “astounding book” with helping him getting a handle on the intricacies of what passes for criminal justice in Pontotoc County.

If you still believe – as I have long since stopped believing – that our justice system is the best in the world, read “The Innocent Man.” You’ll stop believing, too.

* * *

Publisher’s web site: http://www.doubleday.com

Author’s web site: jgrisham.com

One Response to “BOOK REVIEW: Grisham’s ‘The Innocent Man’ Attacks American Prosecutorial System – As Readable as Any of His 18 Novels – and It’s All True”

  1. […] of that taken care of, we can get on with the duties of “re-opening” art framing operations …BOOK REVIEW: Grisham's 'The Innocent Man' Attacks American …… this book is nothing less than an indictment of the American adversarial, prosecutorial system […]

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