John Grisham's first work of nonfiction, an exploration of small town justice gone terribly awry, is his most extraordinary legal thriller yet. In the major league draft of 1971, the first player chosen from the State of Oklahoma was Ron Williamson. When he signed with the Oakland A's, he said goodbye to his hometown of Ada and left to pursue his dreams of big league glory. Six years later he was back, his dreams broken by a bad arm and bad habits-- drinking, drugs, and women. He began to show signs of mental illness. Unable to keep a job, he moved in with his mother and slept twenty hours a day on her sofa. In 1982, a 21-year-old cocktail waitress in Ada named Debra Sue Carter was raped and murdered, and for five years the police could not solve the crime. For reasons that were never clear, they suspected Ron Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz. The two were finally arrested in 1987 and charged with capital murder. With no physical evidence, the prosecution's case was built on junk science and the testimony of jailhouse snitches and convicts. Dennis Fritz was found guilty and given a life sentence. Ron Williamson was sent to death row. If you believe that in America you are innocent until proven guilty, this book will shock you. If you believe in the death penalty, this book will disturb you. If you believe the criminal justice system is fair, this book will infuriate you.
This book was not only heartbreaking in that an innocent man was incarcerated on death row for murder, but I learned of a police force whose ethical standards were mortifying at best and of a mentally illl man who was taunted and teased but never treated for severe his psychological problems which were exaccerbated by the incarceration. Although I'm not a fan of John Grisham novels, my husband recommended this book to me. It sounded interesting enough, but once I started reading it, I was thoroughly gripped by the intensity of the story and the rich details which had been so well researched by the author.
This is a book which will remain with me for a long time. I feel grateful that at least now we have DNA tests which can aid in identifying criminals. I'll certainly be re-examining my feelings about executions after having read how easily innocent men have almost been (and have actually been) executed by our penal system for crimes they did not commit.
Moreover, the penal system maintained these people in inhumane conditions, much worse than dogs in a kennel. Prisoners had no heat, no air conditioning, no fresh air, uneatable, insufficient food and no medical care. Oklahoma figured that these prisoners were going to be executed, so why not treat them as dead.
Of course, the convicts paid the price of the State's actions. Ron Williamson spent 12 years in the Oklahoma penitentiary, mostly on death row, where he lost 90 pounds (he wasn't overweight when he was arrested), his teeth, and completed the deterioration of his mind. Williamson suffered from well-documented mental illness. The prison guards deliberately, for their own amusement, verbally harassed Williamson, causing him to scream of his innocence for hours at a time, until he lost his voice.
The State denied Williamson medical treatment. In prison, he lost both his health and his mind. Grisham completes the picture by describing the suffering also inflicted on the relatives and friends of the prisoners resulting from the State's abuse.
Injustice was not limited to the felons. The family and friends of the victims, as well as the general population, were also mistreated and were left unprotected, since the actual perpetrators went free due to the false convictions.
In short, this book documents the pain and destruction caused by incompetence and abuse of power in the State judicial, law enforcement and penal systems during a relatively recent period. Grisham performed a great service in using his popularity as a storyteller to bring this shameful episode to light.
And then one must take a deep breath.
And realize that this is a true story being told by John Grisham. The man that writes legal thrillers for a living. Who picked two men who were convicted wrongly, but in the glare of hindsight's 20/20 vision, it becomes hard to discern certain things. While I would find it very easy to believe that a person would have reason to make up things against Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz in order to gain a conviction against them - believing that the entire Ada police force, the entire prosecutor's office and the judge and perhaps even the jury were all in on the conspiracy gives pause.
It sounds good - the conspiracy, that is - after all, the idea that this is the result of overworked offices, individuals that were merely complacent and wanted to believe the first explanation that they were offered and really bad group think sounds terrible, doesn't it? But then again, those things are common and that's an even more frightening tale...but not Grisham-sexy. But one that would probably make individuals far more afraid of prosecutorial mistakes when it comes to the death penalty.
Don't get me wrong, it is a very compelling story. There are parts that have to be read to be believed - the tale of the blind public defender being at the top of the list. Grisham also gives Debra Sue Carter the respect of having the first chapter - after all, it was her murder that started the entire saga. Seeing her tragic last moments becomes key to seeing why a small town would feel so compelled to find her killer at any cost.
The book is a good introduction into what can go wrong with a justice system that counts success in terms of conviction. With a system obsessed with the punishment side of things, Grisham has been able to find a case that seems to hit on so many issues and he does a great job of touching on many of them throughout the book. In this vein, it's a read that should make you want to find out more about the issue.
The Take-Away: It is evident within pages as to who Grisham believes is guilty of the murder that sent Ron Williamson to prison and eventually death row. At times, I feared that the fixative for the type wasn't going to last the test of time because the sarcasm was so heavy. Surely, it would pull the text from the pages with its weight. It did not.
Many reviews challenge supporters of the death penalty, declaring that this book is a prime example of why it should be abolished. I disagree. I believe that the system truly failed the four men, and not just Ron Williamson. Perhaps it was Grisham's bias that made it obvious to me that Ron's mental state should have been reviewed. However, in an Amazon interview, Grisham states:
Exonerations seem to be happening weekly. And with each one of them, the question is asked--how can an innocent man be convicted and kept in prison for 20 years? My book is the story of only one man, but it is a good example of how things can go terribly wrong with our judicial system. I have no idea how the book will be received in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma, or any other town.
Instead of challenging the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty, challenge the system which placed them there. In the same interview, Grisham also stated:
Even as a former criminal defense attorney, I had never spent much time worrying about wrongful convictions. But, unfortunately, they happen all the time in this country, and with increasing frequency.
Some of the books should have been cut down. Ron's story of mental illness was played too many times. I felt like saying, "I got it already." But other angles, like his unsuccessful rehabilitation and forced drug abuse illustrated other areas that demand reform and assistance.
Recommendation: Read it, but be prepared for the sarcasm
Mr. Grisham has turned his remarkable story-telling skills and page-turning-inducing writing style to non-fiction with great success.
First of all the story is about five innocent men, not one. But the one his title refers to is detailed to the point of exhaustion and boredom for the reader. I have never been so bored and had to scan and speed read so many pages of a book just to get to the end!
The good news is (in case you have already purchased the book) at chapter 10 it picks up the pace and we finally get some actual action rather than a boring narration of this man's entire life.
If you are struggling with this book I suggest reading chapters 1, 5 & 6 and then skip to 10. Unfortunately, I did not read a single review until I had nearly finished the book. They were all bad, without exception, and all said very nearly the same things I have said here.
I have read and enjoyed nearly all of John Grisham's books. I seen nearly all the movies.
Ann Rule still rules as the best author of true crime!
It is a crazy story that deserved to be told - my one complaint was that Grisham's tone got a little bothersome over time - it was like he was beside me as I read rolling his eyes the whole time...
oh wait! i do have another complaint - its that the captions to the pictures in the middle of the book really gave away how the book unravels... I wish they had been put at the end -
This novel exemplifies everything that has been wrong with the justice system for some time. In a world that caters to public opinion often facts are disregarded in order to make a result, any result. What is terrifying is that the 'innocent men' of this novel are real men. And unfortunately I don't believe what happened to them that can be truly prevented from happening again in a society that grows ever more wary of public opinion turning against them. But I would like it to.