In 1982, Debra Carter, a cocktail waitress in rural, churchy Ada, Okla., was raped and asphyxiated in her small garage apartment. The night before, Carter had been seen at a bar wrangling with a high school acquaintance, Glen Gore, but Ada cops zeroed in on another suspect, an unemployed loudmouth who lived at home with his mother. Weird, erratic, and alcoholic, Ron Williamson was the kind of nutjob it was easy, if not irresistible, to demonize. Over the next six years, on the shakiest of evidence — the word of jailhouse snitches, wrongheaded forensic science, manipulated testimony, and shady witnesses (including Gore) — prosecutors built a case and convicted Williamson, along with a hapless drinking buddy, Dennis Fritz, of Carter’s murder. In 1988, Fritz was sentenced to life in prison; Williamson, to death.
In The Innocent Man, his admirable and meticulously researched new work — the first nonfiction book of his career — John Grisham turns Williamson’s case into both a compelling narrative of everyday judicial failure, and the grim drama of one man’s long battle with mental illness. Unlike Scott Turow, whose cool, lawyerly 2003 tract Ultimate Punishment grappled overtly with the moral complexities of capital punishment, Grisham proffers no arguments here. But you can read an implicit and persuasive critique in his story. Williamson was within days of ”getting the needle” when the court stayed his execution in 1994. Five years later, DNA analysis decisively exonerated both Williamson and Fritz — and implicated Glen Gore. He was finally convicted of the crime in 2006.
The institutional failures that Grisham methodically (sometimes ploddingly) exposes are infuriating, from petty police corruption to Williamson’s incompetent defense lawyer, who was literally blind. But Williamson’s personal struggles are even more wrenching. While Grisham’s descriptive powers sometimes falter, a handful of chilling photos of Williamson, virtually unrecognizable from one year to the next, help fill in the blanks.
The handsome only son of a churchgoing family who played four seasons of minor-league baseball, Williamson had battled psychological problems for years before he got tangled up in a murder case. Eleven years on death row with scant access to doctors and medications did little for his fragile psyche. Even after his exoneration, there was no happy ending. Paranoid and at times delusional, he shuttled between nursing facilities, cheap motels, and the home of a doting, long-suffering older sister — potentially his fate even without the wrongful conviction. (He died in 2004.) Grisham has written both an American tragedy and his strongest legal thriller yet, all the more gripping because it happens to be true.