The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

by John Grisham

Hardcover, 2006



Law. Sociology. True Crime. Nonfiction. HTML:#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • John Grisham’s first work of nonfiction: a true crime story that will terrify anyone who believes in the presumption of innocence.   SOON TO BE A NETFLIX ORIGINAL DOCUMENTARY SERIES   “Both an American tragedy and [Grisham’s] strongest legal thriller yet, all the more gripping because it happens to be true.”—Entertainment Weekly   In the town of Ada, Oklahoma, Ron Williamson was going to be the next Mickey Mantle. But on his way to the Big Leagues, Ron stumbled, his dreams broken by drinking, drugs, and women. Then, on a winter night in 1982, not far from Ron’s home, a young cocktail waitress named Debra Sue Carter was savagely murdered. The investigation led nowhere. Until, on the flimsiest evidence, it led to Ron Williamson. The washed-up small-town hero was charged, tried, and sentenced to death—in a trial littered with lying witnesses and tainted evidence that would shatter a man’s already broken life, and let a true killer go free.   Impeccably researched, grippingly told, filled with eleventh-hour drama, this audio edition of The Innocent Man reads like an edge-of-your-seat legal thriller. It is a book no American can afford to miss.   Praise for The Innocent Man   “Grisham has crafted a legal thriller every bit as suspenseful and fast-paced as his bestselling fiction.”—The Boston Globe   “A gritty, harrowing true-crime story.”—Time   “A triumph.”—The Seattle Times.… (more)

Library's rating


½ (1169 ratings; 3.5)

Media reviews

It’s true in some cosmic sense that the story of every life has value, but not to the writer of nonfiction. Writers of nonfiction narratives learn to pick their subjects with care, because some true stories are much, much more interesting than others. In this case, John Grisham could have
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conjured up a better story on his own.
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When Grisham gets into what happened to Williamson and company during their prison stay, The Innocent Man finds its purpose. In describing the wretched food, poor ventilation, and abusive guards—all factors that led to Oklahoma prisons being condemned by Amnesty International—Grisham makes
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clear exactly what's at stake when the state sends the wrong man to jail.
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Grisham is a great storyteller and a fine, no-nonsense writer. He has a well-honed attention to detail. He doesn't degenerate into cliches and he has a natural sense of dramatic structure that ensures the book has a compelling forward momentum.
John Grisham here crosses the line from fiction to non-fiction. And it's hard to tell the difference. His prose is still lean and fast-paced and his skilful sketches capture all you need to know about the characters. He explains courtroom procedure and precedent in a simple style that allows a
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layman to follow the legal labyrinth. Even the plot would fit comfortably between the covers of one of his earlier books, except this story is true.
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Grisham is a great storyteller but an uninspired writer — he has none of Capote's weird, stark lyricism — but his spare, direct style serves him well here. He expertly dissects each judicial and constitutional outrage with cool precision.
From a nonfiction book, we expect a diagnosis as well as a story. If wrongful convictions in the United States are common — and the new tool of DNA testing indicates they haven't been rare — then why is this so, and what should we do about it? Grisham is critical of individuals like the trial
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judge, the prosecutor and the Ada police, about whom all that can be said is that they railroaded Williamson and Fritz but didn't frame them: They sincerely believed the two were guilty. But Grisham skimps on historical context.
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Grisham has written both an American tragedy and his strongest legal thriller yet, all the more gripping because it happens to be true.
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.
Compared with other works in its genre, “The Innocent Man” is less spectacular than sturdy. It is a reminder not only of how propulsively Mr. Grisham’s fiction is constructed but of how difficult it is to make messy reality behave in clear, streamlined fashion.
Grisham realizes that the most powerful argument against the death penalty is that it kills the innocent as well as the guilty, a case that he makes simply by telling Williamson and Fritz's story. His prose here isn't as good as it is in his novels -- he too often misuses "like" for "as," and the
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exclamation points he inserts as ironic asides are clumsy -- but his reasoning is sound and his passion is contagious.
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In his first foray into nonfiction, novelist John Grisham (``The Firm," ``The Broker") has crafted a legal thriller every bit as suspenseful and fast-paced as his best - selling fiction.

User reviews

LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
Ron Williamson was a young man with a promising baseball career. Unfortunately, he lacked the talent to continue to play in either the major or the minor leagues. After he was cut from both, his luck took a further nosedive when he was imprisoned for forging a check. Suddenly he found himself
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caught in the maelstrom of an unsolved murder and a police force in his hometown of Ada, Oklahoma, which wanted to find the perpetrator quickly. Ron Williamson was tagged as the murderer.

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.
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LibraryThing member brendajanefrank
He's not Truman Capote, but, who is? Grisham did a competent and thorough job of relating the primary story of a huge travesty of justice that occurred in Oklahoma from 1982 through the 1990's. Basically, before DNA testing, law enforcement officials in Oklahoma used flimsy to nonexistent,
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sometimes manufactured, circumstantial evidence to convict defendants on felony crimes.

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.
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LibraryThing member abutler_14
As a long time Grisham fan, I was excited to read a non-fiction from him. I had to keep pushing myself through his writing to finish it. He had to stick to the facts and jumbled many together to get everything out. The story as a whole, was hard to believe and had me searching online before I
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finished the book to find out answers. Anyone who likes true crime should read this, but if you're an avid Grisham fan, reader be weary.
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LibraryThing member stephmo
For those that already have moral qualms with the death penalty, it can be easy to tear through the pages of The Innocent Man feeling moral outrage and indignation knowing that the innocent on death row are there not only because of bad circumstance but because of deliberate action on the part of
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those eager to close cases at any cost.

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.
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LibraryThing member tcarter
Much better than recent novels. Forensic dissection of murder investigations and convictions of four innocent men in small town Oklahoma. The level of blinkeredness, malfeasance and downright deliberate injustice is awe inspiring.
LibraryThing member BinnieBee
I cannot say how disappointed I was in this book. I never even think to look up reviews on a book by John Grisham because they have all been so good...up until now. Of course I knew that it was his first non-fiction but still I thought him a great enough writer to not release something this
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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.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
I stopped reading John Grisham's fiction several years ago because I found the plots a little far-fetched. But, after reading this wonderful account of a man wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death, I can attest that, as the old saying goes, truth really is stranger than fiction.

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Grisham has turned his remarkable story-telling skills and page-turning-inducing writing style to non-fiction with great success.
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LibraryThing member btschamler
I love John Grisham. He is by far my favorite writer of all-time. I again appreciated his writing in this book. However, the story itself is dark and depressing - made worse by the fact that it is true. The first half of the book dragged on as Ron Willamson's life literally fell apart. The second
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half of the book, about his experience behind bars, his near brush with death and his subsequent release was more interesting because it offered a rarely seen inside look at life on death row. I usually enjoy John Grisham's writing because of the fascinating stories. In this book I found myself more saddened at the hand dealt to Ron Willamson and the sorry state of Ada's justice system. As a loyal John Grisham fan, I'm glad I read this book, and according to his web site, it was a project very close to his heart, but I do hope his next book is another work of fiction.
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LibraryThing member CaptKirk
A good story, but a little dry. Maybe that's because it was more of a documentary. It was also a little scattered in the plot. I had a little difficulty keeping track of what was going on, since the story line goes back and forth from long ago to the present.
LibraryThing member size12isnotfat
The Innocent Man is a sad look at one man's mental and physical deterioration, and one small-town police department's quest to prove his guilt in a woman's brutal murder.
LibraryThing member Frenchygurl
I haven't read many of John Grisham's books, but I have found him to be entertaining. This book was written in a slightly different voice than his other books, I'm assuming because it is nonfiction. But, I thought the story was amazing, although sad and one that needed to be told.
LibraryThing member slpenney07
Summary: The judicial system failed four men who are incarcerated on death row.

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
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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
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LibraryThing member daveleo
I found this book very depressing to read. The horrible corruption and incompetence in today's legal community is startling and scary and depressing. Fairly well written, but not a "I can't put it down" book.
LibraryThing member dara85
I think John Grisham better stick to fiction. However, this was a story that needed to be told. The first third of the book was interesting the second third of the book was boring and repetative and there were several sentences, I was unclear who he was talking about. The last part of the book was
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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!
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LibraryThing member booklove64
A non-fiction book about the police and courts in Ada, Oklahoma who wrongly convicted a man of murder. The man was on death row, nearly ready to be executed before he was freed because of the diligence, dedication and integrity of those who really believe our justice system can work. The broader
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context is all the innocents who are wrongly convicted. Detailed and fairly compelling.
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LibraryThing member sandboxbooks
The story of Ada, Oklahoma and Ron Williamson, a man who was falsely convicted of murder. He actually was on death row waiting to be executed, when his case finally caught the attention of some dedicated and hardworking folks who believed he might be innocent. An adequate, if not compelling,
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account of this case.
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LibraryThing member buckeyeaholic
So wrong! So very, very wrong! Quickly...girl is murdered (gruesomely), guy A who did it tells police (totally fabricated) that he saw another guy argueing with her, guy B does time. Much different than his other books, his first true crime. Dull in spots, good in others, infuriating for most of
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it. Made me never want to drive anywhere near that town for fear of being pulled over for speeding & doing 10 years!
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LibraryThing member ellie50
Law enforcement has gotten so good lately in solving crimes, its hard to believe something like this could happen. This story gives anyone pause when considering capital punishment.
LibraryThing member midlevelbureaucrat
I've never read Grisham cuz formula thrillers and mysteries just ain't my bag. Here's a fascinating story of a man, wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grisham does a nice job of relating Ron Williamson's story, the crookedness and rush to judgment of the police and prosecutors, and
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Williamson's inevitable slide into madness exacerbated by his wrongful imprisonment. While the story is a good one, and well told, I guess I'm used to discovering more unique literary voices. Grisham's language and writing storytelling never captured me as other writers have. Though the book t'ain't bad, I'm not in any rush to grab other Grisham books in the near future.
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LibraryThing member alanna1122
Although I thought this book was too slow paced in the first half - it really picked up steam in the second half . For me - the flaws of the death penalty system have always been really obvious - but I can imagine this book might be an awakening for some people.

It is a crazy story that deserved to
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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 -
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LibraryThing member kd9
Although I hold no strong views about capital punishment, I find that there are some compelling arguments against it in this book. The egregious prosecution by a frustrated law enforcement establishment was made even worse by their failure to investigate the real murderer. The incarceration of a
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mentally ill man and his sometimes acquaintance was beyond illegal and resulted in a worthy settlement to the injured parties. However, the lingering suspicion and resentment of the community proves even further that wrongful prosecution, no matter how justified at the time, can never be fully healed.
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LibraryThing member flutterbyjitters
It was really well written, but hard to read, and sad. Definitely really well researched.
LibraryThing member laduke9
This book sucks because it's a true story, no surprise ending, just the story of a drunk who was railroaded by the locals.
LibraryThing member jopearson56
Good, though frustrating. Certainly makes me think Oklahoma is not someplace I'd choose to live, though I suppose this stuff happens everywhere. Grisham makes it all sound so incredible, hard to believe everyone involved wouldn't have seen huge problems with these cases. I read this because I was
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to lead a book discussion on it at my library - though no one showed. Too bad, it would have made for rousing discussion.
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LibraryThing member FolkeB
John Grisham's The Innocent Man is an interesting thriller that gives you an insight to the judicial system in America from 1980s up until the present. The story captures the extreme peaks and low points of being a small town celebrity. In The Innocent Man Grisham takes the readers on an emotional
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rollercoaster with the main character Ron Williamson. Grisham brings to attention how quickly "The System" could literally take everything away from a man in a blink of an eye, and how vulnerable an average person could be. The Innocent Man also shows how a person with enough determination could change their future outcome or someone else's. A person's life could be at stake.

Reading The Innocent Man was a fun journey though the American judicial system. Grisham shows an amazing deal of knowledge about law. There were certain instances where the trial or the stories bogged down. Certain characters seemed to be unnecessarily introduced to the story. The worst part of the book was the pictures that Grisham added in the middle of the book. He had pictures with captions, and some of the pictures gave away the rest of the story. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Grisham did a great job keeping me interested on what was about to come on the next page.

Kyle T.
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Doubleday (2006) 311 pages

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