THE INNOCENT MAN
Murder and Injustice in a Small Town
By John Grisham
Doubleday. 360 pp. $28.95
Many wild and crazy things take place in the 15 novels John Grisham has published about the law and those who play fast and loose with it, but, as he says, "not in my most creative moment could I conjure up a story as rich and as layered" as the one he tells in The Innocent Man . It is nonfiction, a detailed examination of the story of Ronald Keith Williamson, who was wrongfully convicted of a murder in 1988 and who was saved from death by lethal injection only through the intervention of men and women who believed in his innocence and were able to obtain the DNA report that cleared him.
Part of the story has been told before, in Robert Mayer's The Dreams of Ada , which Grisham calls "a fascinating book, a wonderful reminder of how good true-crime writing can be." But it deals primarily with a parallel case in which two young men, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, were convicted, also wrongfully, for a similar crime that occurred a couple of years later: the murder of an attractive young woman in the small Oklahoma town of Ada. Grisham discusses this later case, though in less detail, primarily to give additional emphasis to his account of an earlier travesty of justice in Ada, when Ron Williamson, as well as his friend Dennis Fritz, were tried and convicted of the murder of Debbie Carter, "a 21-year-old local girl . . . a pretty girl, dark-haired, slender, athletic, popular with the boys, and very independent."
She worked as a cocktail waitress at the Coachlight, one of several raffish nightspots on the edge of town. On the night of Dec. 7, 1982, she was seen talking heatedly with Glen Gore, a man she had known since high school, and afterwards, "in the ladies' restroom, she said she would feel safer if one of her girlfriends would spend the night at her place, but she did not say what worried her." Late the next morning a friend stopped by her apartment to say hello; she found Debbie on the floor of the bedroom, "facedown, nude, bloody, with something written on her back." She had been raped and killed, but she clearly had resisted her killer vigorously. The apartment was a bloody mess.
Murder was not a commonplace occurrence in Ada, a town of 16,000, "a friendly place, filled with people who speak to strangers and always to each other and are anxious to help anyone in need." Over the years "cowpokes and drifters" had come to violent ends thereabouts, but this "brutal rape and murder of a young woman was terrifying, and the town seethed with gossip, speculation, and fear."
Pressure to find the killer or killers was immediate and intense, and the local law-enforcement establishment was eager to respond -- eager but wholly inept and disdainful of evidence. While Glen Gore may have seemed the logical suspect -- Debbie Carter was known to be afraid of him, and he had been seen talking to her not long before the murder -- he "either slipped away, or was conveniently ignored, or was simply neglected." He "was not fingerprinted, nor did he give saliva and hair samples." Instead, the cops focused on Ron Williamson, who had not been at the Coachlight that night but who was known "as an unemployed guitar picker who lived with his mother, drank too much, and acted strange."
Not so long before, he had been the town's favorite son, a supremely gifted baseball player who had led Asher High School's team to the state championship, then had signed a pro contract with the Oakland Athletics. He aimed to follow in the steps of Oklahoma's most revered ballplayer, Mickey Mantle, but that didn't happen. Williamson self-destructed. The son of pious, church-going parents, he turned to drink and allowed his natural talents to deteriorate. He married, but that ended unhappily, so he returned to Ada to live with his mother, now a widow, and to lead an aimless existence. "I once had it all," he said, but now he was 28 and had almost nothing. He was known as a noisy, occasionally disruptive presence on the local honky-tonk scene, and twice had been found innocent of rape; in each case, he claimed that the sex was consensual.
The police and the prosecutor got it into their minds that he was Debbie Carter's killer, and they paid little attention to anything that suggested otherwise: "There was not a single fingerprint lifted from the Carter apartment that matched either Ron or Dennis Fritz, a gaping hole in the theory that the two were there during the prolonged and violent attack. There were no eyewitnesses; no one heard a sound that night." The "case against Ron consisted of two 'inconclusive' polygraph exams, a bad reputation, a residence not far from that of the victim's, and the delayed, half-baked eyewitness identification of Glen Gore," not to mention a vast array of completely insubstantial and mendacious testimony offered by jailhouse snitches.
In Ada, though, that was enough to arrest Williamson and Fritz; the latter "had never physically harmed anyone" and "was a suspect only because of his friendship with Ron." The prosecutor, Bill Peterson, built a case against Fritz "on the testimony of convicts and snitches," got a conviction from a jury that seemed to have no interest in the possibility of innocence, and a sentence of life in prison. It was, purely and simply, a matter of guilt by association, and it cost Fritz his freedom for almost a dozen years. It also set things up for the trial of Williamson, who was "mentally incompetent" and whose lawyer was blind (literally) and uninterested in the case. The trial was a farce, its outcome preordained: the death sentence.
Oklahoma, as Grisham wryly puts it, "is serious about its death penalty," and after "the U.S. Supreme Court approved the resumption of executions in 1976," it became the first state to authorize execution by lethal injection. "Once the dam broke, the flood came," Grisham writes. "Since 1990, Oklahoma has executed more convicts on a per capita basis than any other state. No place, not even Texas, comes close." The citizenry was eager to give Williamson the fatal jolt, and his keepers at Death Row were even more eager to oblige, but eventually a lawyer named Mark Barrett, "who handled the appeals for indigent defenders in capital cases" and who "knew there were innocent men on death row," got involved in the case. In time, lawyers for the Innocence Project joined him, and a habeas corpus appeal was presented to Federal Judge Frank Seay, who "launched into a thorough review of the case." In September 1995, he issued a writ of habeas corpus and granted a new trial. His opinion, "a masterpiece of judicial analysis and reasoning," took apart Williamson's lawyer, the police, the prosecutor (for, among other things, "sitting on exculpatory evidence"), the presiding judge and the jailhouse snitches.
Then, in January 1999, DNA closed the case: "The semen from the crime scene excluded Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz." In April their exonerations were made official, and they were released. Four years later, conclusively implicated by DNA testing, Glen Gore was convicted of Debbie Carter's murder and sentenced to death; that conviction was overturned on a technicality, but in June of this year Gore was found guilty once more and sentenced to life without parole. Ron Williamson died two years ago after many years of declining health.
The bizarre twists and turns of this case are exceeded only by the calculated efforts by law-enforcement officers to warp and abuse the law to their own ends. Perhaps it really was the passionate conviction of the cops and the prosecutor that Williamson and Fritz murdered Debbie Carter, but what they did to win their convictions made a mockery of justice. They ignored clear evidence of Williamson's mental incompetence, they suppressed a tape recording that probably would have cleared Williamson, they sought out and employed snitches. The convictions they got were wrongful in the moral as well as the legal sense of the word, but, as Grisham says, "until the system is fixed, it could happen to anyone."
The Innocent Man is a useful companion to Ultimate Punishment (2003), the argument against the death penalty by that other lawyer who writes skillful fiction, Scott Turow. Like Turow, 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 exclamation points he inserts as ironic asides are clumsy -- but his reasoning is sound and his passion is contagious. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.