The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town
By John Grisham (Doubleday, $29)

Among those who keep tabs on wrongful convictions throughout the United States, the Ron Williamson/Dennis Fritz case is legendary; it is, perhaps, the most egregious instance ever of incompetence and dishonesty by police, forensic examiners, prosecutors, and judges. Despite its legendary status in certain circles and despite publications about this particular miscarriage of justice, the wrongful murder convictions of Williamson and Fritz are still somewhat unknown.

That is probably about to change, though, because celebrity author John Grisham has built his first nonfiction book about crime on the Ada, Oklahoma, rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter. After writing 18 best-selling novels, which has made Grisham a household name and a wealthy man, he has decided that truth is stranger, and more worthy, than fiction. Because of Grisham’s fan base, The Innocent Man is quite likely to reach best-seller status too.

During early December 2004, Grisham noticed an obituary in the New York Times under the headline “Ronald Williamson, Freed from Death Row, Dies at 51.” Jim Dwyer, a journalist with an admirable history of documenting wrongful convictions, wrote the obituary. Grisham read it, amazed. How had he missed the original reports about the 1982 rape and murder, the arrest of Williamson and Fritz five years later, the trials and appeals, the brutal imprisonment of the defendants, and, finally, the exoneration of both men after the state of Oklahoma came within five days of executing Williamson?

“Not in my most creative moment could I conjure up a story as rich and layered as Ron’s,” Grisham says in The Innocent Man. “And, as I would soon learn, the obituary barely scratched the surface. Within a few hours, I had talked to his sisters, Annette and Renee, and suddenly I had a book on my hands.” After researching the case month after month, Grisham could not believe his good fortune as an author nor his dismay as a lawyer who wanted to believe the best about the criminal-justice system. “With every visit and every conversation, the story took a different turn,” Grisham writes. “I could have written 5,000 pages.”

Maybe he should have written that many pages. The book, for all its strengths, barely mentions some of the issues involved. Perhaps a 5,000-page book by Grisham could have elucidated in greater detail all the factors leading to the arrests, trials, and prison terms of two men who had no connection to the Carter homicide, factors such as:

» Law-enforcement officials being desperate to close a murder investigation after years of dead-ends;

» Those same law-enforcement officials deciding to arrest Williamson based on a theory that failed the common-sense test, and then compounded that mistake by arresting Fritz, solely because of his sporadic friendship with Williamson;

» The lack of credible physical evidence;

» The concocted accounts of unreliable jailhouse snitches hoping for personal favors;

» The suppression of evidence by the prosecutors that, if revealed, might have led jurors to acquit the defendants;

» Junk science dressed up as reliable and valid evidence and presented under oath by those working in police crime labs;

» Defense lawyers in over their heads;

» Trial and appellate court judges who apparently failed to pay close attention to the evidence.

In addition to these acts of villainy, the saga features heroes, too, including a few open-minded, persistent lawyers, judges, private investigators, and journalists. But it is not a feel-good book, despite the presence of those heroes and the eventual exonerations of Williamson and Fritz. It is, however, an important book. Maybe with Grisham bringing to light the causes and frequency of wrongful convictions, meaningful reform will occur in every jurisdiction rather than in only a few. - Steve Weinberg