The Page Turner As Polemic
By JOSHUA MARQUIS
October 10, 2006; Page D6
John Grisham, in his first nonfiction book, writes about the 1987 trial and sentencing to death of Ron Williamson for the murder and rape five years earlier of 21-year-old Debbie Carter. Mr. Williamson's appellate lawyer succeeded in getting his conviction overturned based on claims that his first trial lawyer was inadequate. While preparations for a new trial were being made in 1997, newly available DNA testing established that neither Mr. Williamson nor his friend and co-defendant, Dennis Fritz, was the killer.
In Mr. Grisham's novels, the characters usually divide into two groups: the good guys caught up in evil conspiracies and the villains who concoct them. "The Innocent Man" is no different. Thanks to his abundant storytelling skills, the author delivers an account that is as vivid as the Grisham fictional fare sold at airport kiosks -- but it is also, alas, just as oversimplified as his novels, and it distorts the justice system in the same way. Make no mistake, "The Innocent Man" -- with its blunt subtitle ("Murder and Injustice in a Small Town") and its author's long-professed zeal to attack capital punishment -- is not simply a legal thriller drawn from real life. It is a polemic.
Ron Williamson was a promising high-school baseball player who in 1971 was a second-round draft choice of the Oakland A's. His family and his hometown, Ada, Okla., shared Mr. Williamson's high hopes that he would become a baseball superstar. But Mr. Williamson sputtered in the minors for a few seasons before abandoning his dream and beginning a slide into a dissolute life of drinking, drugs and crime. There were two formal charges of rape in 1978, neither charge resulting in conviction. In a letter (not mentioned by Mr. Grisham) that Mr. Williamson wrote while on death row to the prosecutor who put him there, he claimed -- apparently trying to illustrate how the justice system can indeed fail -- that he had gotten away with one of the rapes.
The crime that sent him to prison unjustly was discovered when two of Debbie Carter's friends found her in her apartment in a grisly scene all too common in sex murders. Police went down many dead ends while investigating the case, and after four years it remained an unsolved killing in a small town -- until someone pointed a finger at Mr. Williamson, who had frequented a bar where Ms. Carter worked. His incriminating statements and a strand of hair that seemed to match his own convinced police that Mr. Williamson, along with his friend, Mr. Fritz, were Debbie Carter's killers.
One of Mr. Grisham's heroes in "The Innocent Man" is high-profile attorney and Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck ("...and Barry Scheck was coming to town! Scheck's fame was growing enormously as the Innocence Project pulled off one DNA exoneration after another"). But despite the author's cheerleading for Mr. Scheck's involvement in the Williamson case, the DNA testing that set Mr. Williamson free was in fact prompted by defense attorney Mark Barrett and District Attorney William Peterson. Far from having railroaded Mr. Williamson, as Mr. Grisham implies, Mr. Peterson -- the chief prosecutor in the case -- was convinced that DNA testing would further validate Mr. Williamson's conviction.
The DNA sample turned out to match that of another man, Glen Gore, who had hung out in the same bars as Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fritz and who was in prison on other charges. Mr. Williamson and his co-defendant were freed in a highly choreographed media event in April 1999; they sued the government agencies involved and settled in 2002 for an amount that was rumored to be in the millions of dollars. Two years later, Mr. Williamson died of cirrhosis at age 51. Though Mr. Grisham, publicizing the book, has said that Mr. Williamson "drank himself to death," he suggests in print that Mr. Williamson's death was caused by medications that the author variously claims were overprescribed or denied to Mr. Williamson while in custody.
You would hardly know it from "The Innocent Man," but the same district attorney's office that Mr. Grisham vilifies for its eagerness to prosecute Mr. Williamson with shabby evidence ("it was remarkable that Bill Peterson, an officer of the court and charged with the duty to seek the truth, could elicit such garbage") went just as earnestly after Glen Gore for Debbie Carter's murder. Prosecutors had to try Mr. Gore twice; the first conviction was overturned when a judge ruled that Mr. Gore's defense should have been allowed to raise the possibility that Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fritz had murdered Debbie.
These attempts to bring Mr. Gore to justice, and even the murder of Debbie Carter itself, are very much sideshows in Mr. Grisham's story. He is much more interested in depicting how the once-bright dreams of Ron Williamson were destroyed by police and prosecutors who were inept at best but more likely corrupt. Yoking together the Williamson affair and the 2001 drug conviction of an Ada police officer -- who was not involved in the murder investigation -- Mr. Grisham cries: "When will the good guys clean house?"
The one-sidedness of "The Innocent Man" is a shame, for two reasons. First, because it feeds the popular perception -- nurtured by Hollywood and the news media -- that death rows are teeming with wrongfully convicted men who just await DNA testing to set them free. Second, by skewing his tale, Mr. Grisham missed an opportunity to tell a well-rounded and perhaps more interesting story than the one he delivers. The author is not a journalist, and it shows: He doesn't maintain even a pretense of detached reporting. He didn't attempt to get Mr. Peterson's side of the story, though hearing from the supposedly irresponsible prosecutor might have been illuminating. Indeed, Mr. Grisham seems to have given a wide berth not only to prosecutors but also to the police and even to the judge in Mr. Williamson's trial.
Opponents of capital punishment will point to "The Innocent Man" as vindication of their views, but it's not clear that their cause, in the end, is well served by Mr. Grisham's heavy-handed proselytizing. The freeing of Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fritz was the result of the legal system's checks and balances; it is characterized by Mr. Grisham as a lucky fluke in the never-ending battle between plucky defense attorneys and bloodthirsty prosecutors. While that outlook might make for fiction that readers just can't put down, it misses the fact that in the real world of complicated heroes and villains, life does not imitate art.
Mr. Marquis, the district attorney in Astoria, Ore., is vice president of the National District Attorneys Association.