three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
By: 
John Grisham
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0

Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

A-The Innocent ManDrafted by the Oakland Athletics in 1971, Oklahoma native Ron Williamson was a hero in his hometown of Ada. Injuries and wicked major league curveballs drove Williamson back to Ada, where he soon became better known for his way with a liquor bottle than his past glories on the diamond. Twice accused of rape—and twice exonerated—Williamson was the prime suspect when Debra Sue Carter was raped and murdered in 1982. Prosecutors shipped Williamson to death row (his friend Dennis Fritz received a life sentence without parole) on the scantiest of evidence. Now legal novelist John Grisham turns his attention to this true tale of justice gone horribly—and nearly fatally—wrong.
Doubleday. 368 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 0385517238

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"In his first foray into nonfiction, novelist John Grisham … has crafted a legal thriller every bit as suspenseful and fast-paced as his best-selling fiction. An Innocent Man is a page-turning and chilling descent into one innocent man’s Kafkaesque nightmare of injustice and madness." Chuck Leddy

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"It is not a feel-good book despite the exonerations of Williamson and Fritz. It is, however, an important book. Maybe with Grisham shouting out the causes and frequency of wrongful convictions, meaningful reform will occur in every jurisdiction, rather than only a few." Steve Weinberg

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Grisham’s message is clear: Each American is entitled to equal protection under law, and every American has an obligation to defend that right. … In vivid detail, Grisham exposes the outrageous and inexcusable investigatory tactics used by the local and state law enforcement officials who brought the charges." Bob Van Brocklin

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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 … but his reasoning is sound and his passion is contagious." Jonathan Yardley

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"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. … In the face of such flagrant abuse of a suspect, Mr. Grisham has a hard time keeping sarcasm at bay." Janet Maslin

Wall Street Journal 1 of 5 Stars
"[The Innocent Man] feeds the popular perception—nurtured by Hollywood and the news media—that death rows are teeming with wrongfully convicted men who just await DNA testing to set them free. … Opponents of capital punishment will point to The Innocent Man as vindication of their views, but it’s not clear that their cause, in the end, is well served by Mr. Grisham’s heavy-handed proselytizing." Joshua Marquis

Critical Summary

Many of the literary skills that have established John Grisham at the forefront of mainstream legal thrillers (The Firm, The Pelican Brief) find their way into his first nonfiction brief: a razor-sharp sense of right and wrong; an eye for the unjustly accused; and a finely tuned legal mind. The majority of reviewers find Grisham making the transition to "real" life with ease: he turns out a compelling version of this confounding miscarriage of justice. Other critics find that Grisham’s narrow view of the case undercuts its complexity and the philosophical issue at hand. In the end, reviewers’ politics color their assessments. To most, it seems all to the good that über–best seller Grisham is putting his weight behind this thinly veiled treatise against abuses of the death penalty.

Inspired by

The Dreams of Ada | Robert Mayer (1987): When two young men, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, were accused in 1984 of raping and murdering Denise Haraway, they were sentenced to death—without a body, without witnesses, and without hard evidence.