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Book review: 'The Innocent Man': John Grisham brings to life a true tale of injustice

Steve Mills
Chicago Tribune

John Grisham's journey into non-fiction started with an obituary.

It was the story of Ron Williamson, a one-time draft choice of the Oakland A's who washed out of baseball and became a drunk, was convicted of a rape-murder and sent to Death Row, then was exonerated by DNA.

The December 2004 obituary for the 51-year-old Williamson set the best-selling novelist down the unfamiliar path to writing his first work of non-fiction, "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town."

Instead of drawing characters and plot from his imagination, as he has done in more than a dozen novels, Grisham traveled to Williamson's Oklahoma hometown and other locations, studying court records and conducting interviews to bring Williamson's story to life.

"Not in my most creative moment could I conjure up a story as rich and as layered as Ron's," Grisham writes in his author's note.

The result, though, is a rather straightforward account of the case against Williamson and his co-defendant, Dennis Fritz. Grisham dissects the police investigation and prosecution with a surgeon's precision, clearly benefiting from telling a story that is well-documented and oft-told. But Grisham writes the story with such restraint that, at times, he fails to arouse sufficient anger at the miscarriage Williamson and Fritz suffered.

Grisham hits on all the familiar themes contributing to wrongful convictions: inept or corrupt detectives, false confessions, unreliable forensic science and prosecutors trying to win convictions rather than do justice.

The crime at the center of "The Innocent Man" is the December 1982 rape and murder of Debbie Carter, 21, a waitress at a beer hall and honky-tonk called the Coachlight in the small town of Ada, Okla. Carter was strangled with an electrical cord. A washcloth was stuffed deep into her mouth. On a table and a wall in her apartment where her body was found, as well as on Carter's back, her killer scrawled messages in ketchup.

Grisham signals in the first pages that the real murderer is Glen Gore, another local who, the night before Carter was found dead, danced with her until she broke away from him out on the dance floor. Later, witnesses told police, Gore and Carter argued outside the bar before Carter went home. An angry Gore then left the Coachlight.

But, as in so many wrongful-conviction tales, the police - local Detective Dennis Smith, and Gary Rogers, an agent with the state's bureau of investigation - went down the wrong road. A prosecutor, Bill Peterson, went with them.

In Grisham's telling, the three were negligent and corrupt, hiding evidence and ignoring signs that pointed away from Willamson and Fritz and to Gore. Friends of Carter's told police Gore was one of the last people seen with her, while Williamson and Fritz were not at the Coachlight. Yet Smith and Rogers focused on Williamson and Fritz, largely because Gore told police he saw Williamson at the bar the night of the murder.

While Grisham charts the police investigation, he also chronicles Williamson's life and eventual mental slide. The son of churchgoing parents, he was a local baseball standout, and his only hope to leave Ada was through the sport, just like his hero, Mickey Mantle, another Oklahoma kid.

Williamson was drafted and signed a contract with a big bonus. He married a local beauty queen and, in his mind as well as in the view of many Ada residents, had made good. He was Ada's favorite son.

But it all quickly turned sour. In the A's clubhouse one day, superstar Reggie Jackson humiliated the young hopeful. Williamson then blew out his arm, dashing his hopes of making a life in the major leagues. When he turned more and more to drinking, his wife divorced him.

The failures were crushing. Williamson's drinking got worse. He began to display signs of the mental illness that would dog him the rest of his life.

Williamson was accused twice of rape, and though acquitted each time, the luster of his youth was clearly gone. He got and lost a series of menial jobs. He began to spend long hours sleeping on his mother's couch.

As Carter's murder went unsolved, the police grew frustrated. They nursed a hunch that Williamson and Fritz were involved but found no evidence to prove it. Indeed, all their physical evidence pointed away from them. A bloody palmprint found on a wall in Carter's apartment did not match either man's, nor did any of the fingerprints at the crime scene. Nobody could place Williamson and Fritz with Carter, and Williamson's mother, who scrupulously kept a daily diary, insisted she could prove her son was home the night Carter was murdered.

None of it mattered.

Until then, Williamson had insisted he had nothing to do with Carter's murder. But police squeezed him until he finally agreed to a "dream confession" using details provided by detectives to incriminate himself.

The confession alone was not enough, however. So the prosecutor ordered Carter's body exhumed, and a top state fingerprint examiner took prints again and again, comparing them to Williamson's. This time, he concluded, they match.

Forensic scientists also used the junk science of hair comparison - essentially looking at two hairs under a microscope, a discipline that even then was considered of only modest value - to link Williamson to the crime. Five years after Carter's murder, Williamson and Fritz were charged.

At the trial, Williamson was saddled with a blind attorney who, while he came to believe Williamson was innocent, was no match for the local prosecutor. On top of that, he was paid only $3,600 to handle the defense.

His mental illness raging, Williamson repeatedly disrupted the trial, yelling that he was innocent and should be released. When he was condemned for a crime he did not commit and sent to Death Row, he screamed through the night for anyone who would listen that he was wrongly convicted. No one listened to his rants except for an inmate who would be freed after he, too, was exonerated by DNA evidence.

At one point, Williamson came within five days of execution. That he went free is almost a fluke. A federal judge took an interest in the case and, swayed that police and prosecutors had perpetrated an injustice, ordered a new trial.

Then attorneys for Williamson and Fritz obtained DNA testing that proved conclusively that neither man was involved in Carter's murder - a fact the police and the prosecutor grudgingly acknowledged.

By the end of the story, it is no surprise the DNA connected Gore to the crime. But, hitting another key theme of wrongful convictions, Grisham notes that despite the DNA evidence, prosecutors waited two years to charge Gore. He is now serving a life sentence for Carter's rape and murder.

Grisham salts Williamson's story with other Oklahoma injustices, suggesting the police in Ada have solved other crimes with dream confessions that are not to be trusted.

He notes, too, that the cost of wrongful convictions is not just the 11 years stolen from Williamson and Fritz. Officials in Ada have raised property taxes twice in the past two years to help pay to settle lawsuits Williamson and Fritz brought against law-enforcement officials.

Although at times he allows an unnecessary sarcasm to emerge in the writing, Grisham draws sober lessons about the flaws in the criminal-justice system.

With "The Innocent Man," Grisham joins the growing roster of novelists and reporters plumbing the world of the death penalty and wrongful convictions. These writers are ferreting out miscarriages and, in some cases, saving lives. With Grisham's large and devoted following, he is sure to expose a massive audience to a subject many readers might otherwise avoid.

___

"The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town" by John Grisham; Doubleday ($28.95)



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