Monday, September 07, 2009

Presumed Guilty


On several occasions, I found myself putting down my book -- The Innocent Man by John Grisham -- and shaking my head, declaring that the story was just too outlandish. Who would ever believe such a ridiculous tale, I mumbled? If this had been a novel, it certainly would have been panned for being unbelievable.

Yet the miscarriage of justice not only happened, it was compounded over and over during the course of the history of this case that spanned almost a dozen years.

The Innocent Man is Grisham's version of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. As noted in the Washington Post review:

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.
I decided to read Grisham's book after following the Troy Davis case, the Georgia man whose conviction for killing a policemen has been called into question. See Death is Final. In fact, the Supreme Court recently took the unusual step of ordering a hearing into Davis' Claims of Innocence.

Like me, Hilde of wrongful-convictions just finished the book and our opinion of the book is similar:
The book tells the story of Ron Williamson of tiny Ada, Oklahoma. A washed-up minor league baseball player with delusions of grandeur, Williamson was a somewhat unpleasant character who is eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to death because of shoddy police work, tunnel vision, lackluster defense counsel, forensic fraud, and the abject failure of the court to ensure a fair trail. The book could read as a Cliff’s Notes guide to wrongful convictions if it could be boiled down to 10 pages, but that would do it an injustice.

The book’s reputation proceeds it, and it lives up to every word of the praise that has been heaped on it since it was published three years ago. “Meticulously researched,” is a common refrain among reviewers, and they’re dead on. I found it hard to believe, at times, that Grisham was intricately describing reality – dozens of interviews, thousands of pages of documents – rather than crafting a world of his own: his creation is so complete as to be completely engulfing.
Death penalty proponents argue that the system is fair and prevents an innocent person being put to death. However, cases like Williamson's make a mockery of those claims. Another case was detailed in the current issue of the New Yorker, where it is likely that the man put to death for a fire that killed his children was not arson, as had been claimed by the "experts" who testified at trial. See Cameron Todd Willingham, Texas, and the death penalty.

Unfortunately, despite the so-called presumption of innocence in a criminal case, many of those involved in the criminal justice system do not share that belief. Too often, "gut feelings" and biases are involved in the process. The arrogant and dogmatic personality of many prosecutors and officers does not allow them to deviate from the course they are following once they have focused on a suspect, despite indications to the contrary. Naturally, this generalization does not apply across the spectrum, but it happens often enough to be a serious problem -- especially when liberty and life is at stake. As Hilde observes:
And so continues the portrait of America’s criminal justice system that Grisham paints: full of unintentional yet overwhelming absurdity, laced with vengeance, spite, dehumanization, and utterly confusing and overwhelming for whomever should become ensnarled in the maelstrom.
Except for the cruel & hard-hearted, such as some of the very characters that were involved in the prosecution of the case highlighted in the book, this true story of a wrongful conviction in a small town in Oklahoma should be used to establish that the death penalty is too risky for a civilized nation to use. Last I checked, the US is still on the list of civilized countries.

Nineteenth on Grisham’s list of publications, the book aligns with Grisham’s well-known theme of legal drama but takes one major detour from his past work: it is nonfiction. The project forced Grisham to take a hard look at a troubled system in which the consequences of a lost court case are all too real.

“Even if you support the death penalty, you cannot support the death penalty system as it stands in the U.S.,” Grisham said. “My one hope is that people realize this system we have is simply too unfair to continue.”

From a summary of the book at speech at University of Virginia School of Law, Author John Grisham Finds Troubled Story Behind “Innocent Man”.

As Jonathan Yardley said in his Washington Post piece:
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."
For more on Dennis Fritz, who was wrongfully convicted with Ron Williamson, see Barbara's Journey Toward Justice.

4 comments:

texastriallawyers said...

I find John's legal fiction to be extremely entertaining and fun to read. Each in its own right just a little bit too unbelievable to sell as reality. Yet each year in America folks are convicted wrongfully. Some investigations are even politically motivated and I find that extremely disturbing.

The simple truth of the matter is that justice is not equal for all. Those who have money can afford the best legal representation money can buy and all that comes with it. Those who don't get what they can from the system and when the death penalty is involved it is sometimes not enough.
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Anonymous said...

The book’s reputation proceeds it, and it lives up to every word of the praise that has been heaped on it since it was published three years ago.

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