A Dark, Troubling Tale

By Epstein, Matt | Judicature, May/June 2007 | Go to article overview

A Dark, Troubling Tale


Epstein, Matt, Judicature


A dark, troubling tale by Matt Epstein The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, by John Crisham. Doubleday. 2006. $28.95.

I have read a number of John Grisham books and like most lawyers I know I appreciate how he keeps my interest and weaves a riveting tale, but find myself annoyed at the lack of realism. I keep protesting that those things just do not happen in real life. The Innocent Man was no different. Those things simply do not happen in real life. But they did and that is what makes this book so disturbing. It is a dark tale that leaves the reader deeply troubled.

Ron Williamson grew up in Ada, Oklahoma, a small, friendly, vibrant town where gruesome murders do not happen. Ron was more likely to be voted Most Likely to Succeed than to end up on death row. He was an attractive, engaging baseball superstar, the next Mickey Mantle to some proud Oklahomans. Like most high school heroes, he failed in the big leagues. We will never know how far his talent might have taken him had not injuries and the ravages of mental illness left him a dysfunctional shell of his former self. It also made him the tragic hero of Grisham's first attempt at non-fiction.

Grisham tells us that he had never heard of Ron Williamson until reading an obituary with the headline "Ronald Williamson, Freed From Death Row, Dies at 51." When he read that Williamson had been a baseball star, the baseball fanatic turned author knew he had to tell the story. He took 18 months to research and write the book, admitting that in his most creative moments he could not make up a story like this.

This was not an easy book to write. The reader knows the plot before the first page. There is a violent murder in a small Oklahoma town. Ron Williamson will be convicted, spend years on death row, come within five days of execution, and eventually be exonerated. Shortly thereafter he will succumb to cancer. It reads more like a documentary than a novel, generally adhering to the facts and lacking creative dialogue to hold our interest and help us empathize with the characters. But the actual dialogues were not recorded and to his credit Grisham resists the temptation to fabricate them to enhance the story. True life does not move smoothly, there is no orderly plot development and no clean transitions.

To many reviewers The Innocent Man was a rambling, repetitive narrative, to others an accurate portrayal of real life. Grisham is still a novelist by trade, however, and his characters tend to be one dimensional. There are bad guys who are real bad and good guys who are real good. The bad guys railroad Williamson and the good guys free him.

No guarantee of justice

How could this happen? Don't we have safeguards to prevent the innocent from being convicted? We do but they can fail and in this case, and at least 194 other documented cases of wrongful conviction followed by exoneration, they did. The Innocent Man documents apparent wrongful convictions of at least five other men, leaving us struggling to maintain our faith in the criminal justice system. Mix together the right elements and that system, with all its safeguards, is no guarantee of justice.

In Williamson's case we have the violent, unsolved murder of an attractive young lady followed by another murder with increasing pressure on the district attorney to convict the killers. The district attorney is human and once he became convinced Williamson was the killer, cognitive dissonance crept in. Every minor consistent detail became overwhelming proof and contrary evidence was easily explained away. And then there were the mistakes-lost evidence, pseudoscience presented as solid proof, shoddy detective work, incompetent forensic analysis, and a blind defense lawyer who overlooked that his client was mentally ill and who lost his co-counsel along the way. Williamson, deteriorating from degenerative mental illness and lacking treatment, could not have been a more unattractive defendant and must have been quite threatening to the simple, churchgoing townspeople of Ada, Oklahoma. …

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