The Innocent Man, by John Grisham

Books — By 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.


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  • Sara,
    I am not a Catholic but I aspire to be one. I have always been especially impressed with the Catholic “seamless garment of life.” Its theological…wholeness…appeals to me. More importantly, the reverence for life is powerful and entirely consistent with the Jesus of the gospels. Life, with all of its potentiality, should be carefully protected.

  • Barbara says:

    Dennis Fritz started his “Journey Toward Justice” July 2005.
    July is when he started writing his book “Journey Toward Justice” in which he details his arrest and subsequent imprisonment until his release April 15, 1999.
    This is from my blog, called “Barbara’s Journey Toward Justice”
    Dennis Fritz was Ron Williamson’s friend and co-defendant in the Debra Sue Carter murder case. John Grisham wrote about the case in his book,The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.
    Grisham writes about Ron Williamson and his role in the case. He does an excellent job and is a Great Book.
    Dennis Fritz tells his own compelling story in his book, “Journey Toward Justice”.
    Dennis Fritz was close to Ron Williamson, and I am sure Dennis has his own stories about their life and times together.
    John Grisham announced in 2005 he was going to write a book I decided then that if he could do it so could I”, said Dennis Fritz.
    ” I am now on a Mission, and that is to bring about public awareness of false convictions.” Dennis said, “It was a 12-year nightmare I suffered with my family for not doing anything and being completely innocent. That’s a large part of the book, the obstacles and hurdles we had to go through.The harm that it did to me was that it took 12 years out of my life and away from my family members.
    I think the strongest part of my book is the total anguish and misery that I go through from being totally excluded from family, including my daughter,” Fritz said. “I would not let her come and visit me because of the activities that were going on in the visiting rooms. I could not bear for Elizabeth to see what went on in that prison, so I restricted her from visiting me. It was not the kind of thing that any 11-year-old girl should see, and it tore my heart out by not being able to see her.”
    Fritz said.
    “I was subjected to indignities that no person should have to suffer, let alone a person who was innocent of the crime.”
    “Just the fact that I was a suspect in a murder got me fired from my job,” Fritz told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
    Five years after the murder Fritz was arrested, there was a delay by state exhumation of Debra Sue Carter after an incorrect analysis of finger prints at the scene was noted. Also, an inmate that Fritz was paired with eventually came forward and stated that Fritz had confessed to the murder.
    This jailhouse snitch gave a two hour taped interview revealing what Fritz had allegedly confessed to him.
    This confession came one day before the prosecution would have been forced to drop the charges against Fritz. According to Fritz, when they went to trial, an overzealous District Attorney, Bill Peterson, had a case built on flawed hair evidence and jailhouse snitches who received reduced sentences for their testimony.
    The detectives then told me they knew I had not committed the crime, but they believed I knew who did it. From the very beginning, I always told them I was innocent, but it made no difference.”
    “My family, my mother my aunt and daughter stuck behind me the whole way,” Fritz said. “Through our faith and their belief in my innocence, that is what busted those prison gates wide open. If it was left up to man himself, I would still be in their today.”
    “Our love prevailed over the mighty forces of the evil prosecutions that went on then,” Fritz said. “Love itself is the most powerful thing.
    No matter what circumstances love always prevails. It just took 12 years for it to happen. We would not let go that the good Lord would set me free one day.”
    Dennis Fritz now hosts a radio show “Truth In Justice”, works with the Innocence Project in Kansas City, Missouri. He makes appearances related to “the innocence movement” nationwide.
    He is using a book he recently published, “Journey Toward Justice”, as a vehicle to bring awareness of the overall, devastating effects of how false convictions can destroy people’s lives and how mistakes can be made in cases.
    He travels the United States speaking to law schools and also hopes to reach prosecutors and judges

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