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the innocent man

5 august 2009

I used to read a lot of true-crime books, though my intake has slowed in recent years. The classics of the genre, from Truman Capote's In Cold Blood to terrific books by Shana Alexander, Jack Olsen, Ann Rule and others, were very successful but entirely imitable. Truth became more formulaic than fiction.

John Grisham, who knows something about literary formulas, produced an entry in the true-crime genre, The Innocent Man, three years ago. It's been in mass-market paper for almost two years, but it took me a while to get to it. "Murder and injustice in a small town," went the subtitle. I was sure I'd read it before.

Judging the book by its subtitle, though, meant doing it an injustice. Every element of the true-crimer is there, but so are elements of what one might call the "constitutional thriller," a small genre of books pioneered by Anthony Lewis's Gideon's Trumpet (1964). Grisham's book is indeed about an innocent man (actually two innocent men) railroaded into prison for a crime they didn't commit. But it goes further, into sharp commentary on a system that is still largely broken in America.

In December 1982, a young woman in Ada, Oklahoma, was brutally murdered. The last person seen with her was a dangerous young man named Glen Gore, who had a record of domestic violence and a long rap sheet. Gore went unsuspected.

Meanwhile, the Ada authorities, tipped off by the very dangerous drug-dealer they should have been investigating, fixed their attention on Ron Williamson. Williamson had been a high-school baseball star in nearby Asher, Oklahoma in the 1960s, but after a brief spell in the minor leagues, he had sunk into alcoholism, manic-depressive disorder, and his mother's couch. He had twice been tried for rape, and twice acquitted when the sex seemed consensual to a jury. Women told stories of his being a creep, but he seemed more exuberant than violent. And on the night of 7 December 1982, he had the most crystalline of alibis: he was sitting on that couch next to his mom watching movies. She even had the video-store receipt to prove it.

Here, however, the true-crime genre itself played a hand. Earlier in the 1980s, the Ada authorities had convicted two men of a separate murder, based on "dream confessions": a kind of Kafkaesque interrogation technique where a suspect describes, as if in a dream, what the crime would have been like had he committed it. Grisham relates how the police videotaped these confessions and used them against both suspects, even though the confessions contradicted each other and were wildly at odds with fact. (It should be noted that the prosecutor in question, Bill Peterson, disputes every word Grisham has written, including "a" and "the": see his website Grisham's Folly.)

A true-crime writer named Robert Mayer wrote a debunking book about the dream-confessions case, called The Dreams of Ada. Grisham suggests that prosecutor Bill Peterson, thrown by Mayer's critique, got right back in the saddle and started building a dream-confession case against the hapless Ron Williamson and a fairly random buddy of Williamson's named Dennis Fritz.

There was no more evidence in this murder case against Williamson and Fritz than there was against Abbott and Costello, but the two men were the chronic "usual suspects" of American misjurisprudence, characters straight out of The Thin Blue Line. Neither one had assets or connections. Both had drifted in and out of the barfly scene. In any given parking lot in America, there's some poor guy who can quickly clear your casebook. Williamson and Fritz drew the short straws in this case.

Williamson ended up on Death Row in Macalester, Oklahoma. Fritz was paradoxically less lucky: sentenced to life in prison (because there was, if possible, even less than zero evidence against him), he didn't have recourse to the automatic appeals and network of pro bono activists that provides some modest scrutiny in death-sentence cases. Williamson was quite insane by the time of his incarceration; the machinery of appeal went on largely without him. Fritz had to become a serious jailhouse lawyer to jump-start his own appeals.

Williamson came within a few days of execution before federal judge Frank Seay ordered a stay and then a new trial. Seay, a no-nonsense conservative who had no problem with the death penalty, also happened to be a fair man with some real-life sense of how a down-and-outer might be framed. Meanwhile, the Innocence Project had taken on Fritz's case. Back in Ada, the charges against both were dismissed, after DNA evidence failed to connect either one to the crime scene. (DNA evidence placed Glen Gore very much at the scene, and he was eventually convicted of the murder.)

Egregious violations of Williamson and Fritz's constitutional rights abounded in this case. But in a sense, such violations are built into the way Americans administer the Constitution. Especially here in the Southwest, we demand vigorous law-and-order policies. Huge percentages of the populations of Texas and Oklahoma are in prison, with many more on parole or probation. We demand that the worst offenders be killed, silently and secretly, ostensibly for deterrence but more obviously for revenge.

Yet we don't fund the system, just as we don't fund most aspects of community life, with anything near the thoroughness that would help it avoid even the most elementary mistakes. Whatever the motives or the competence of the people who prosecuted Williamson – and Grisham is very nasty about them – it almost doesn't matter. The state spent the bare minimum in investigating the murder and way less than the bare minimum in defending the indigent suspects.

Crime-scene and crime-lab work was, as too often, sloppy, tendentious, and disorganized. I love CSI as much as anybody; it's a brilliantly-written show. But you know the usual episode of CSI. Grissom and Warwick find a speck of snot at a murder scene. They encapsulate the snot in hyper-purified gelatin and feed it into a particle accelerator. They run the snot's profile through the Interpol Universal Phlegm Database and pull up an image of some poor schnook's Nevada driver's license. Brass cuffs the perp and they roll credits.

We love CSI because it's fantasy. In real life, labs are underfunded. Cases are worked sporadically by dozens of different investigators. With the best will in the world, prosecutors just don't have the resources to establish the iron-clad truth; meanwhile, the public is clamoring for somebody's, anybody's, hide. And even the paltry resources appropriated for the prosecution dwarf the investigative tools at the disposal of your ordinary private defense lawyer, let alone a court-appointed counsel.

If I'm ever pulled in on a bum murder rap, I want it to be in TV Las Vegas, not in real-life Oklahoma. But then, I'm a white, 50-something English professor, drugfree and in possession of an impeccable accent. I'm as likely to end up in Huntsville as I am to be queried by the police for breaking into my own house. Prejudice abounds in 21st-century America; it would be stupid to think otherwise.

Grisham, John. The Innocent Man: Murder and injustice in a small town. 2006. New York: Dell, 2007.

Note: there seems to be an instance of Eddie Scissons Syndrome in The Innocent Man. Ron Williamson was definitely a professional baseball player. He was an indifferent hitter in short-season A ball, and outclassed in full-season leagues. He reinvented himself as a pitcher and was given a shot with the 1976 Oneonta Yankees, but he couldn't get anybody out: in eight innings he surrended 15 walks and 12 runs. 1976 was Williamson's last year as a pro, but Grisham asserts that he played a full season for Ft Lauderdale in 1977: "Ron made fourteen appearances, pitched thirty-three innings, won two, lost four" (398). But you can look it up: here's the roster of the 1977 Ft Lauderdale Yankees, and Williamson isn't even on it.

What happened? Grisham seems so precise about information that turns out to be simply made up. It's likely that a Williamson relative relayed inaccuracies about his final year in baseball, inaccuracies that made his exit from the game look a bit more dignified. But it's a troubling spot of credulity on the author's part.