John Grisham makes social justice entertaining

[29 April 2009]

By Jane Henderson

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

ST. LOUIS - John Grisham calls himself a “low tech” guy.

He has an e-book reader that’s “wonderful” - but he can’t get used to reading on it. For his novels, he tries not to bore the reader with too much scientific or legal jargon. He’s not even terribly interested in getting inside a character’s gray matter.

“I’m not real good at developing characters,” he says.

So, when he comes to St. Louis this week as featured speaker for a fundraising dinner, he won’t be there to explain the ins-and-outs of precisely how DNA evidence can save a person’s life. He’ll do what he does best:

“I just tell stories.”

The master of the legal thriller will help raise money for the Midwestern Innocence Project, which reopens cases in which DNA or other evidence may prove the innocence of an inmate.

The group’s office is in Kansas City and, like similar projects, across the country, it is flooded with letters from convicts pleading for help.

The letters can be heartbreaking, Grisham says.

Speaking by telephone from his home in Virginia, he may downplay his own knowledge of the eye-glazing intricacies of DNA and junk forensic science. Yet he clearly knows his way around the world of wrongful convictions.

Grisham was America’s best-selling novelist of the 1990s (J.K. Rowling usurped him the following decade with Harry Potter). Of his 22 books, readers usually favor thrillers such as “The Firm” or this year’s best-seller, “The Associate.”

Only one of his books is nonfiction. “The Innocent Man,” published in 2006, is the true story of two men convicted in a rape and murder they did not commit. It sold surprisingly well, he says, and the case opened his eyes to the thousands of innocent people locked up in prisons.

Sure, most convicts are guilty, he says, but of the 2 million people imprisoned in the United States, at least 2 percent are innocent.

“That’s the low estimate,” he says. “What is frustrating is that so many of the wrongful convictions could easily have been prevented.”

Grisham serves on the board of the Innocence Project in New York, which focuses on DNA testing to determine innocence or guilt.

In the true case that inspired “The Innocent Man,” a man’s brush with the death penalty wasn’t just caused by lack of a DNA test. False confessions, withheld evidence, a jailhouse snitch and bad forensic science contributed.

Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were convicted six years after the 1982 murder in Oklahoma. They spent 11 years in prison; at one point, Williamson was five days from execution. Eventually DNA showed that neither had raped the victim.

The true killer was the prison informer who claimed that Fritz admitted committing the crime.

“‘The Innocent Man’ exposed some flaws in the system, but it’s going to take a lot more than one book to change things,” he says.

Grisham advocates several changes. Vying for top of the list: Police interrogations in serious crimes should be recorded by video or audio, not just the “confession” after 14 hours of questioning, and eyewitness-testimony procedures should be “cleaned up.” Police lineups can be misleading: Witnesses’ opinions have been proved wrong in 75 percent of convictions that have been overturned. (For more information, see

The author works for reform not only by serving on Innocence Project boards based in New York and Mississippi, but also by donating his time to appear at chapter fundraisers. He’s done about 20.

Grisham, a Baptist, says he felt called to be a Christian when he was 8 years old in Parkin, Ark. He’s taught Sunday school, and his beliefs affect how he writes.

He told journalist Bill Moyers on PBS last year: “The content, the language, even the violence, is something that is easy to stomach. And I would not, because of my faith, write any other way.”

His next book, scheduled for October, will be a collection of short stories. But for the next novel, he won’t commit himself to a topic. Many social issues interest him, including the environment, drug testing and juvenile justice.

Entertainment with a bit of social justice is a combination that works for him. And, as he says: “There’s no shortage of issues.”

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