THE INNOCENT MAN: MURDER AND INJUSTICE IN A SMALL TOWN, by John Grisham. New York: Doubleday, 2006. 368pp. Hardcover. $28.95. ISBN: 9780385517232.
Reviewed by Jack E. Call, Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University. Email: jcall [at] RADFORD.EDU.
John Grisham’s legal novels are well-known to avid readers of that literary genre. THE INNOCENT MAN is Grisham’s first (and so far only) venture into non-fiction. It tells the story of Ron Williamson, an Oklahoma boy with great promise as a professional baseball player. However, the demons of drink, drugs, and mental illness prevented Williamson from fulfilling that potential. Eventually, Williamson’s demons also destroyed his marriage, prevented him from holding a decent job, and resulted in his development of a local reputation as an erratic, unpredictable man who could be likable at times but was generally not to be trusted. When a young female acquaintance, Debbie Carter, was found raped and murdered in her garage apartment in his hometown of Ada, Oklahoma, in 1982, it was not surprising that the police eventually considered him a person of interest.
For many readers, THE INNOCENT MAN will interest them as a story about a man whose promise as a person is unrealized and who becomes a victim of the criminal justice system. Their interest will lie in Ron Williamson, the person. For others, the interest lies in the story the case tells about the criminal justice system. As such, it can be added to a growing list of stories told about justice gone awry.
THE INNOCENT MAN paints a picture of a seriously flawed criminal justice system. While virtually no component of the system portrayed in the book emerges unscathed, it is the police who look particularly bad, with the prosecution running a close second. The police did a reasonably good job of investigating the murder scene (although at trial, Williamson’s defense attorney pointed out in his cross-examination of one of the primary investigators that they had failed to look for fingerprints in several logical places). Numerous people who knew Debbie Carter or had been at the night club where she was last seen alive in public were interviewed. None of them mentioned anything about Ron Williamson.
Glen Gore should have been an obvious suspect. He had been seen with Debbie hours before her death, talking with her at her car in the parking lot of the night club she had attended that evening. At least one witness said that Debbie was seen pushing Gore away, although others reported seeing nothing unusual occur between the two. At least two people indicated that Debbie had told them that [*603] she was afraid of Gore. (Unfortunately, Grisham is a bit unclear as to how much of this information was known to the police. He makes it clear that one person called the police and reported to them that Debbie had a running dispute with Gore about a windshield wiper that she thought Gore had stolen from her car and that she was afraid of Gore. It is unclear how much of the other evidence connecting Gore to Debbie on the night of her murder was uncovered by the police. However, if the police were unaware of much of this evidence, they obviously could have found it, since Grisham was able to find it).
The police apparently focused on Williamson as a suspect when, three months after the murder, Robert Deatherage told the police that he had just finished a short stint in the local jail, where he had shared a cell with Williamson. He indicated that Williamson had seemed uneasy every time the subject of the Carter murder had come up in conversation. (Grisham does not indicate why the police interviewed Deatherage). The interest of the police in Williamson as a suspect was increased further because he kept weird hours, had engaged in much erratic behavior, lived a short distance from Debbie Carter’s apartment, and had recently been acquitted on two rape charges. When Williamson reported “dream...