In The Innocent Man, John Grisham tells the true story of Ron Williamson, a man from the small town of Ada, Oklahoma who was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit.
This is a powerful book. Before reading it, I was 100% in favor of the death penalty. Now having read it, I believe the death penalty should be abolished. How did this book bring about such a radical change in my thinking? After I give you a brief synopsis of the story, I’ll explain how this eye-opening book challenged my deeply held beliefs about the criminal justice system.
The Story of Ron Williamson:
Ron Williamson didn’t have much going for him. It was 1983 and Ron was back home in Ada, Oklahoma after his boyhood dream of playing major league baseball had fallen apart. Ron had signed with the Oakland A’s and had played several seasons in the minor leagues. But alcohol and drug abuse combined with a shoulder injury derailed Ron’s career.
In addition to that, Ron was beginning to show the first signs of mental illness – an illness that would later be diagnosed as schizophrenia. At the age of thirty, Ron was back in Ada living with his mother and trying to find work and stability.
As bad as things were for Ron, they were about to get worse. On the morning of December 8, 1983, the body of Debbie Carter was found in her apartment. She had been savagely raped and murdered. Only twenty-one at the time of her murder, Debbie had been a cocktail waitress at the Coachlight, an Ada nightclub where Ron was a regular (WARNING: spoiler ahead).
The Ada police believed Ron was responsible for Debbie’s murder, but they couldn’t put together enough evidence for an arrest. Finally, after several years of investigation, Ron was arrested for the murder along with a friend of his, Dennis Fritz. The two were tried and convicted. Ron was given the death penalty and Dennis was given life without parole.
While on death row, The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that helps exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners, began working on Ron’s behalf. Using DNA, The Innocence Project proved Ron’s innocence. After eleven long years in prison, both Ron and Dennis were given their freedom.
My experience reading The Innocent Man:
The Innocent Man is a story of bad police work, bad prosecutor conduct, bad lawyer and bad forensic science.
I started reading The Innocent Man not because I was interested in the subject matter, but because it was one of the few John Grisham books that I had not yet read. There was no way I could have known when I started reading the book that it would result in a monumental shift in my thinking about our criminal justice system.
All good people feel outrage and grief when learning that a heinous crime has occurred. We’re angry and saddened when we hear that a police officer has been shot to death in the line of duty. Our heart breaks when we hear a news report about a child being abducted. We’re baffled and angry when we hear about an innocent person murdered for no reason at all other than the fact that he or she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Because of this outrage, we rightly want someone to pay for the crime.
For me, the lesson of The Innocent Man is that it is critical that the person who pays for the crime is the person who committed the crime. When we arrest and convict the wrong person, the real perpetrator goes free. Justice is then denied to the victim.
In addition to that, a wrongful conviction creates a new victim. The life of an innocent person is destroyed.
My experience of reading The Innocent Man was similar to the journey that John Grisham reports that he had while researching and writing the book. In the Author’s Note at the end of The Innocent Man, Grisham writes:
“The journey exposed me to the world of wrongful convictions, something that I, even as a former lawyer, had never spent much time thinking about. This is not a problem peculiar to Oklahoma, far from it. Wrongful convictions occur every month in every state in the country, and the reasons are all varied and all the same – bad police work, junk science, faulty eyewitness identifications, bad defense lawyers, lazy prosecutors, arrogant prosecutors.” (The Innocent Man, John Grisham, page 356).
Before reading this book, I had long believed that all of the players in our criminal justice system sought justice for all. I was naive.
While reading The Innocent Man, I was shocked at the amount of incompetence and malfeasance that resulted in the wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Franz. With each new revelation of wrongdoing by the authorities, my confidence in our justice system eroded just a little bit further.
So now, I am against the death penalty. The story of Ron Williamson – a man who was exonerated just five days before his execution date – has convinced me that we should not impose a penalty that can’t be undone if we learn that the convicted is actually innocent.