The Innocent Man, by John GrishamBooks — By Jordan Green on August 20, 2007 at 12:00 am
In The Innocent Man, Grisham takes his first stab at non-fiction after much success in the field of legal thrillers. The Innocent Man tells the story of a brutal murder in small-town Ada, Oklahoma and how the town’s police department and local prosecutor botch the murder investigation so severely that their actions lead to two wrongful convictions.
From the very beginning, the Ada police department refuses to look at the most obvious suspect, instead honing in on a mentally-ill former baseball star, Ron Williamson, and his occasional drinking buddy, Dennis Fritz. The extent to which the police investigators and local prosecutor mishandle this case and the rule of law are so egregious (and illegal), I continually felt like I was reading one of Grisham’s fictional thrillers, rather than a true story. Eventually, the case goes to trial, and the jury finds both men guilty, sentencing Fritz to life in jail and Williamson to the death penalty.
Only with the help of a few very committed attorneys and the Innocence Project are Fritz and Williamson able to receive an appeal, in which both of their cases are thrown out, due largely to newly available DNA technology. Williamson and Fritz spent over thirteen years in prison. Williamson was repeatedly denied medically treatment for his numerous mental health issues, and Fritz was denied the opportunity to see his daughter grow into a young woman. Upon dismissal of the case, the local prosecutor who had so ruthlessly hounded these men refused to offer even a simple apology for ruining the lives of Williamson, Fritz and their families.
I grew up Catholic, so, for me, taking stances against abortion and the death penalty arose out of the same conviction – the sanctity of all life. Since college, I have become engaged with a more evangelical community, and it has always bothered me that many evangelicals ignore the death penalty issue, while actively participating politically in the campaign against abortion. Being pro-life, for me, refers to being in favor of all life, wherever and however it exists, despite our human judgments otherwise.
I am confident that there are hundreds of other stories nearly identical to the ones told in The Innocent Man. Fortunately, Williamson was exonerated prior to being executed; others haven’t been so lucky. For me, though, the fact that there are innocent men and women on death row, while convicting, is not the deciding factor in my stance against the death penalty. Jesus calls us to be counter-cultural, to be forgiving, to rely on His judgment, not our own. As Pope John Paul II writes in his Evangelium vitae:
The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity.
While not openly offering an opinion either way on the issue of the death penalty itself, Grisham paints a compelling picture of one situation in which the death penalty was clearly unjust. The reader can’t help but wonder how many other similar situations there are among current prisoners sitting on death row, and one can’t help but question our right, as a society, to determine whether a person lives or dies.