03 December 2006

Books of 2006, Part 16: The Innocent Man by John Grisham

John Grisham in his author notes at the end of The Innocent Man said that writing nonfiction was something that “seldom” crossed his mind. Writing fiction was so much more fun and, probably, much more profitable.

But when an obituary about a freed Death Row Ronald Williamson catches his eye, Grisham becomes so intrigued about the man’s life and what happen to him, he would devote 18 months to lay out how our justice system failed to see the obvious.

Yes, I’m sure there are many in prison who did not do the crime they were convicted of and, sadly, some have died also from capital punishment. And Ronald Williamson’s life story is just one story of many, but it does shine the light into the dark corners of our judicial system. Over the last 3 or 4 decades, some people have claimed that the guilty get a better treatment than the victim. Here, though, is proof that at least one man, was abused by the system there to protect him.

While hindsight is always twenty-twenty, there was many obvious flaws in Ada, Oklahoma’s near zealous attempt to prove that Ronald Williamson and Dennis Fritz committed a brutal murder in 1982. Like Kenneth Lay, the Enron CEO who went to his grave convinced he did nothing wrong with his employee’s money, we have two people -District Attorney Bill Peterson and a cop named Dennis Smith - are still convinced that Williamson is guilty of murder, despite DNA evidence exonerating them.

This, or course, calls up another issue. Yes, both Williamson and Fritz had run-ins with the law in the 1980's, but even as evidence shows them not guilty, people are still convinced they were involved. After all, they have rap sheets. They are crooks, how can you believe a word they say -despite that the Ada police used snitches to convince the jury that Williamson and Fritz killed the girl.

All in all, The Innocent Man opens the door to a community under pressure to find a murder and a town willing to ignore every judicial right a person has to make bogus evidence stick.

While I believe in the death penalty, this book raised some doubts for me. Williamson was tragic character out of Shakespeare, but he was a sick man, a poster boy for bipolar disorder. He was wrongfully accused of a murder and only had a few people in his corner that believed him.

Science, like DNA evidence, will ultimately set a person free or convict them. And while character is always useful, hard proof is, and will be, the smoking gun in solving a crime. Making that science available to little cities at a cheaper price can save a person from sitting in jail for the rest of their lives -especially if they are innocent.

And we are still innocent until proven guilty?