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

20 comments:

  1. My brother was reading this one a few weeks ago and really enjoying it. Now, with your recommendation as well, I may pick this one up. Thanks, Sam.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is a truly first class book.A lot better than some of the drivel Grisham has been turning out in recent years.

    Nick

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've wanted to read this book for months. When CanadaBoy got on a Grisham kick a while back, I bought this book for him so I could borrow it from him...now he's packing up to leave...I must wrest it out of his sweaty grasp.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've also had this book on my to read list. Glad you liked it, maybe I'll move it up.

    If you like crime FICTION, I posted a Q&A with a great young crime fiction writer, Michael Koryta, on my blog (www.jensbookthoughts.blogspot.com) - check him out!

    ReplyDelete
  5. This one has been on my shelf just waiting for me to open it. I think I will this weekend! Thanks, Sam.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I had never read anything by Grisham before (not a fiction fan), but when this first came out, I was intrigued and had also just finished reading the Stephen Truscott story and so I picked up a copy of
    'The Innocent Man' and was not disappointed. It was very well researched and written.

    A.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I enjoyed the book as well although my guess is that there are a lot more people who were let go or never caught than innocently resting in jail. (Or course considering jail population and world population...)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Perhaps I am the only person in the country who read this book and found it boring. Perhaps it is because I didn't actually READ the book; I listened to it while driving to Virginia and back. Or perhaps it is because I have been in law enforcement for over 20 years. It seemed to me that Grisham saw everything in too much black and white -- either cops and prosecutors are good or bad, ethical or not, when a lot of the decisionmaking in an investigation and prosecution involves more nuance than reflected in the book.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Jenclair, I found the facts of the case to be horrifying...and still wonder how the prosecutor and police officers involved still have their jobs...in that same county. Amazing.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Nick, I agree with you...Grisham's fiction is sometimes a little "soft" lately.

    ReplyDelete
  11. It's worth a little wrestling, bybeee...it is a sad commentary on law enforcement in that part of the country, at least at that time.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks for the link, Jen...much appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Karen, I hope that you enjoyed it. The style wasn't all that great but the "story" was horrifying.

    ReplyDelete
  14. A., it is the kind of "story" that will stay with me for a long time because it's something I really didn't want to believe was possible.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm sure you're right about that, Carrie, but the idea of an innocent man being executed due to faulty or dishonest police work is just appalling to me. I'm still a firm advocate of the death penalty but this does make me wonder.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Syndi, I understand what you're saying. I did find this book to be on the dry side when it came to writing style. It could have used a bit more of Capote's style, for sure.

    But the story it told makes me question the ethics and honesty of those involved in railroading these two men to death row. They ruined two lives forever and they show no remorse for doing so.

    The prosecutor still works in the county...and he was a bigger criminal than the men he charged with murder and rape, IMO. I don't understand how he kept his job or shows his face in the county.

    ReplyDelete
  17. The fact that the prosecutor kept his job is one of the things that makes me wonder how objectively Grisham has told the story. Look at what happened to the prosecutor in the Duke rape case. I think that's the far more likely scenario if the story is an accurate portrayal of what really happened. Call me cynical....

    ReplyDelete
  18. I know what you're saying, Syndi, but these cases didn't seem to get a bit of publicity outside the immediate area and the whole system was run by lazy people who seemed willing to create evidence and ignore evidence, whichever was needed, in order to get convictions.

    I doubt that the guys were ever investigated by the proper authorities themselves.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I just finished this book and along with being well written, it was also very disturbing that the legal system could be so neglectful in so many ways. Although Mr. Williamson was far from choir boy, this could have happened to anyone, when getting a conviction is more important that getting the truth.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I completely agree, James. This is a very scary story when one stops to think that most anyone could be caught up in a similar net by a police department determined to close a case with an arrest - no matter what.

    ReplyDelete

I trust spammers and their products about as much as I trust those of use car salesmen, faith healers, and politicians. Please understand why I am having to ask for "word verification" even for legitimate comments. I feel your pain.