Mon April 9, 2007
The Innocent Man
The life of Ron Williamson, convicted in Oklahoma of rape and murder and later acquitted, is reviewed in this book.
By Don Noble
With the possible exception of books such as A Time to Kill and A Painted House, there is usually no real point in reviewing the annual novel by John Grisham. His loyal readers buy them and love them. Hollywood has turned nine of them into movies. His legal thrillers have sold 225 million copies in 29 languages.
But this book is, in fact, different. The Innocent Man is Grisham's first work of nonfiction, and it is a stunner?thoroughly researched, convincing, smoothly written, and well-paced.
Just as Truman Capote first learned of the Clutter family murders in Kansas from a piece in the New York Times, so Grisham saw the Dec. 6, 2004 obituary "Ronald Williamson, Freed from Death Row, Dies at 51." And just as Capote sensed that there was a story and finally produced his masterpiece In Cold Blood, so Grisham says he knew there was a nuanced, complicated story to tell, and he devoted the next eighteen months of his life to The Innocent Man.
Ron Williamson, his subject, was a rather ordinary boy who grew up in Ada, a small Oklahoma town. Ron was a good-looking kid who developed a talent for baseball and became a clotheshorse, spoiled brat, ungrateful son, and preening ladies' man, and did in fact get drafted by the Oakland A's with a $50,000 signing bonus. To his parents, who had sacrificed mightily for him, he gave a color TV. He bought himself a new Cutlass and some clothes and lost the rest in a poker game. One does not like or admire Williamson, but that is not the point.
In 1982 a pretty young Ada woman, Debra Sue Carter, was brutally raped and murdered, and this set in motion Williamson's nightmare. By this time, Williamson was a local bad boy. He had arm troubles and his baseball career was over. He drank too much, used drugs, and couldn't or wouldn't keep a job. He was also sliding into mental illness, both schizophrenia and bipolarity.
The pressure on the small-town police force to solve the murder was, as in most small towns, immense, but five years passed before they arrested Williamson, and they meant to make it stick. Williamson's court-appointed attorney was blind. He was excellent at cross-examination, but because of his blindness unable to examine key pieces of visual evidence.
The guards at the jail would overdose Williamson on Thorazine to keep him easy to manage and then withhold it before courtroom appearances so that in the courtroom he behaved like a raving homicidal maniac. The police frightened some witnesses, telling one man that if his memory didn't improve he might get "lead poisoning." They also seem to have arranged for some jailhouse snitches to testify, and eagerly used others, totally unreliable and looking for their break.
There was actually a confession by an unbalanced character named Ricky Joe Simmons, but the arrogant, narrow-minded, stubborn DA never revealed its existence. There should have been a change of venue, but the judge denied it. By an oversight, the retired chief of police was allowed onto the jury. Williamson's lawyer was denied funds to hire an expert to refute very dubious hair evidence.
Although there was finally no real evidence against him, Williamson was convicted, sentenced to death, and sent to death row at McAlester Prison. In his little cell, with no daylight or fresh air, Williamson's mental health steadily worsened. Each cell had an intercom and the sadistic guards would amuse themselves by whispering to Williamson, "Ron. This is God. Why did you kill Debbie Carter?" Williamson, a devout Christian, would rant and scream for hours, to the guards' delight and the distress of the other death-row prisoners.
On one of Williamson's appeals, a sensible judge noticed all that had gone wrong. Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project also got involved, and after twelve years in prison Williamson was retried, exonerated, and released. The DA, the judge, the state of Oklahoma?no one offered so much as an apology.
Grisham, himself famously a lawyer, has enormous respect for the legal system in general but warns readers near the end: "This was an average white guy, from a good family . . . chewed up and abused by the system. . . . It could happen to anyone."
The Innocence Project has freed over 180 men using DNA evidence. Grisham never quite says so explicitly, but it is impossible to read through this book and maintain your faith in the death penalty.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.