Grisham's New 'Innocent Man' a True Tale
Thursday, October 12, 2006; 6:13 PM
NEW YORK -- John Grisham's latest book, "The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town," has the usual touches fans have come to expect from the master of the legal thriller: suspense, shock, even a wrongful conviction and near-execution. But this time, the tale is true.
In his first nonfiction book, Grisham tackles the story of Ron Williamson, a former baseball player who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Ada, Okla., and came within five days of being executed before he was finally acquitted _ after nine years on death row.
"The story was all there," Grisham said in an interview with The Associated Press. "All I had to do was put it together."
Grisham read Williamson's obituary in The New York Times on Dec. 9, 2004, and he knew he wanted to write the story. He got on the phone with Williamson's sisters and the deal was done in about three hours. "I was struck by just the compelling nature of the story _ it had small town, it was about a trial gone wrong, prosecution not right, man who was mentally ill and a good baseball player."
Grisham hates research and he was in uncomfortable territory, wading through boxes of documents and materials from the family, mental health records, trial transcripts, depositions, fourth grade report cards. He traveled around with a recorder for 18 months, interviewing lawyers, judges and Williamson's co-defendant, Dennis Fritz, carefully transcribing the quotes.
"When I write fiction, it takes a lot to get me out of the seat to check anything," Grisham said. "I hate to stop the writing to go check a fact, to go find a city, to go to a hotel _ I'll just make stuff up."
But with "The Innocent Man," published by Doubleday, he was dogged about getting his facts straight, especially because some of the people in the book are still alive, and because the prosecution botched the case so badly, many individuals aren't portrayed in good light.
"Many of those people bought that book today, and they're reading the book now, and what I don't want people to do is say, 'Well, here's a mistake.'"
Williamson and Fritz were convicted in the slaying of Debra Sue Carter, who was sexually molested and strangled in 1982 in Ada, Okla. Frtiz got a life sentence. Williamson spent nine years on death row, at one time coming within five days of execution before a stay was ordered. In April 1999, an Ada judge noted that DNA tests of semen and hair samples did not genetically match Fritz or Williamson and he dismissed the charges.
Glen Gore, the man last seen with Carter, and who helped convict Williamson and Fritz, was eventually convicted in her death, with the help of DNA evidence.
Barry Scheck, a lawyer who founded the Innocence Project _ a legal group that uses DNA to exonerate convicts _ and represented Fritz, said he hopes Grisham's book will put more focus on the problem of wrongful conviction for people who may not be familiar with such cases.
"Having a writer of his ability and reach getting a story like this will turn the heads of most Americans," Scheck said. "Hopefully, they will learn that there are solutions, there are ways to make these problems better."
The story made Grisham _ who is against the death penalty _ want to get out of his seat and practice law again, although he's not headed back to the courtroom anytime soon.
"I'm not a crusader," he said. "I don't stick to just one issue, I tend to write about it, then leave it. But I hope this book makes people think about the justice system."
Working with characters he could not control was often difficult for Grisham, especially as he got to know Williamson, who died of cancer. A former baseball player in the minor leagues, Williamson was often selfish, a serious drinker and eventually diagnosed with bipolar disease. His behavior often made women uncomfortable.
"About halfway through, I realized my hero was not likable, and that could never happen in fiction, because you control the story," Grisham said. "I was pretty nervous about the reader. But by the time you get to the trial, you're sympathetic."
The story haunts Grisham, who hasn't been back in court since 1996 when he represented the family of a railroad brakeman killed when he was pinned between two cars. (Grisham won the case, earning his clients a jury award of $683,500 _ the biggest verdict of his career.)
He'd much prefer to be at his Charlottsville, Va., home writing or with his wife, Renee, who trains horses. The couple's son, 22-year-old Ty, just started law school at the University of Mississippi, his father's alma mater, and their daughter, Shea, 20, is in college.
Born in Arkansas and raised throughout the South, Grisham was a small-town lawyer and state legislator in Southaven, Miss., when he decided in the early 1980s to wake at dawn every morning to write a novel about a racially charged rape and murder trial.
Published by a small press in 1989, "A Time to Kill" sold just 5,000 copies. Then came "The Firm," which sold 1 million copies in 1991 and made Grisham a star. Now, a standard first printing for a Grisham hardcover is an astronomical 2.8 million copies, Doubleday said.
Each Grisham book is a best seller _ even a non-courtroom novel such as "Skipping Christmas," and even those no longer among his favorites, such as "The Client," which he calls "bloated" and too long.
"The Innocent Man," which came out Tuesday, is shaping up to the same kind of success, said Bob Wietrak, vice president for merchandising for Barnes & Noble, Inc.
"When we don't have a John Grisham book out we're disappointed, because we count on the sales of his book as well as bringing customers into our stores," he said. "He's a sure bet." Wietrak said Grisham's success is because of his storytelling talents.
Grisham said he has a knack for pacing and suspense that readers really enjoy, and has a very simple, chronological style that people can follow without much work.
He is methodical about his writing, publishing a book every year. He usually writes for six months, but "The Innocent Man" took 18 months, and he's eager to get back to fiction writing.
"I enjoyed almost all of it, even the research," he said. "It'll be a long time before I do nonfiction again. I can't wait to get back to the novels."