Seems like everyone I know has been reading this nonfiction book by John Grisham about a pair of men unjustly convicted of murder. I don’t normally read Grisham , but after hearing about the book from Geralyn, my mom, and others I got curious enough to take a look. It also kind of helped that the plot takes place in parts of my home state of Oklahoma that I’ve been to or seen: Ada, Tulsa, McAlister State Prison (only seen that one from a distance, never lived there thankfully), Broken Arrow, and more. So that was a good hook for me.
As far as true crime stories go, The Innocent Man is pretty engrossing just for how outrageous and complicated its characters and plot are, only the roles are a bit flipped around from what you may be used to: the accused (and eventually convicted) murderers are the tragic heroes of the book, while the Ada police, prosecutors, judges, lawyers and did I mention the THE POLICE are painted with varying shades of villainy. The main characters, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, are falsely accused of a ghastly rape/murder and all but framed by the Ada police and public prosecutors, who build cases against the men using flimsy “evidence” like dream interpretation, tall tales from jail house snitches looking for a plea bargain on their own cases, unscientific hair analysis, and other dubious testimonies. The cases are so flimsy and so absurd that you can hardly believe it could be allowed in court, much less lead to a conviction and death sentence. But they do.
And that’s not even all of it. At every turn things just go from bad to worse for Williamson and Fritz. Their court-appointed attorney is incompetent. The man who SHOULD have been the prime suspect (and who was eventually found to be the real murderer) claims to be selling drugs for the cops in exchange for their turning a blind eye. The Ada police officers force unreliable confessions out of the defendants using assault, threats, and lies. Oh, and did I mention that Ron Williamson was clinically insane and nobody involved with the case –not even Williamson’s own defense attorney– thought to bring up the fact that he was incapable of understanding and responding to the charges being brought against him? It’s just ludicrous, and a little scary because the subtext of the whole thing is “This happened to them. So it could happen to you. That’s how screwed up things are, or at least can be.”
The book isn’t without its flaws, though. Drawn as it is from a true story the book has a sup-optimal structure for maximizing dramatic impact. The most intense part of the book is when Williamson and Fritz are convicted, yet one would think that their eventual exoneration would be the climax. Instead, the latter is kind of flat and lackluster, and then followed by quite a bit more relatively dry material detailing the aftermath and short-lived celebrity status the men find. The overall effect is that things start to sputter in the last quarter of the book, lacking the drama and forward momentum that made the first three quarters so readable.
Still, the events are so outrageous and upsetting to one’s sense of fairness that it’s pretty captivating on balance. And one thing I’ve learned for sure, the second a “routine” interview at the police station turns into a spittle-filled, screaming demand that you confess to something you didn’t do, ask for a laywer. Right then. This whole story might never have happened if these guys had done so.