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Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Innocent Man

Ron Williamson was at one time one of the favorite sons of Ada, Oklahoma. He was a young man with tremendous athletic skills and many locals believed that he just might be the next Micky Mantle, who is still the greatest baseball player to ever come from that state. But largely because of chronic injury problems that started in high school, Ron was not destined to become a great professional ballplayer. He got his shot, and managed to stay in the minors a lot longer than he probably should have, but baseball is not the thing for which Ron Williamson is remembered by citizens of Ada, Oklahoma.

No, when the people of Ada think of Williamson, what they recall is the rape and murder of which he was convicted and the years that he spent on death row. They remember that he came within five days of actually being executed for a crime with which he had absolutely nothing to do. Well that’s what most of them remember, anyway. Other Ada locals perhaps still want believe the local prosecutor who refuses to admit that he was wrong to ever charge Williamson with the crime, and who still wants to hold out the possibility that the DNA evidence that exonerated him does not prove that he was not involved in some way.

When it came to pinning the rape and murder on someone, Ron Williamson was certainly an easy target. Ron’s drinking problem began in high school and, when his baseball career unraveled, alcohol, drugs, and struggles with depression made it impossible for him to hold a job or to move on with his life. So when the baffled investigators and prosecutors in Ada decided that the crime was so brutal that it had to involve two people, Ron and his running buddy Dennis Fritz were “chosen” as the crime’s most logical perpetrators.

Now all they needed was the evidence to convict the two innocent men and cover themselves in glory as great crime fighters. There was no evidence to be found, however, something that did very little to slow down the police investigators or the local prosecutor who had already decided that Fritz and Williamson were guilty. A combination of creatively coerced “confessions,” testimony from local lowlifes (one who was later to be convicted of the very crime in question), sloppy testimony from experts, a judge who proved his own incompetence, and lies suggested to, and regurgitated by, jailhouse snitches, managed to convict both the men.

Their story is one that most of us would like to believe never happens in this country. Unfortunately, as Grisham proves in The Innocent Man, it probably happens much more often than we know. All it takes is the right combination of incompetent policemen, investigators, expert witnesses, prosecutors and judges to make it possible. Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz had years stolen from them and their lives were largely ruined by the very people charged with protecting the public welfare. This is one scary story.

Grisham tells the Fritz and Williamson story in a very straightforward way. There is no attempt to “novelize” what happened through the use of extensively recreated dialogue or by speaking from the points-of-view of its main characters. That does make for some rather dry reading at times but the details resulting from Grisham’s research makes his straight reporting of the facts a fascinating one. The 10-disc unabridged audio version of The Innocent Man is read by Craig Wasson who does a particularly effective job in giving a voice to Ron Williamson’s frustration and outright anger about the situation in which he found himself.

Fans of John Grisham’s novels, in which the action seldom seems to stop, might find the pace of this one to be a little slow. But Grisham had an important story to tell and he told it well.

Rated at: 4.0
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