aberration: Pabu from LoK taking a nap next to an old-fashioned radio. (smoke you out)
veronica ([personal profile] aberration) wrote2016-02-13 05:12 am
Entry tags:

you shall pursue

And with what I think will be the last of these that I actually started in 2015: a couple months ago on the bus ride back from UB (or to, I can't remember), I started reading John Grisham's The Innocent Man. This was Grisham's first nonfiction book – the only other Grisham book I'd read was A Time to Kill, which while I'd found it interesting, I hadn't been that impressed with the characters or prose.

The Innocent Man recounts the 1988 convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz for the 1982 rape and murder of a young woman named Debbie Carter. The book begins on the night of the murder, and stretches to Williamson's death in 2004 (Grisham was inspired to write the book after reading Williamson's obituary). By that point, both Williamson and Fritz had long since been exonerated by DNA evidence that had been unavailable at the time of their trial.

True crime stories, and especially reviews of past prosecutions, have become more popular recently, what with Serial and Making of a Murderer (neither of which I've seen/heard). This book, while a critical review of the police and prosecutors who built the case against Fritz and Williamson (as well as, for that matter, their conditions in prison and death row following their convictions), isn't about bringing reasonable doubt to light in their cases. The DNA evidence which exonerated them is irrefutable, and further implicates a third man, toward whom all evidence would have pointed in the first place, had the police ever given it any consideration. This book isn't about the question of whether an innocent person could be convicted, sent to death row, and be days from execution. It's about how innocent people are convicted, how they continue to be, and how the injustices spread from the wrongly accused to the victims and their loved ones and beyond. This case doesn't speak of isolated incidents, but of systemic problems in the criminal justice system, and the difficulties inherent in ensuring justice in the first place.

I keep stopping and rewriting, because it's easy for this to turn into a much longer post than I want to write. So I'm just going to focus on Grisham's work here. I saw a few reviews on goodreads that called this book boring, which I could never do, but I'll acknowledge that it may read more like an especially impassioned legal brief than one of his fiction thrillers. This is actually great for me, as I get everything that I find interesting without the faults I have with Grisham's fiction writing.

I think Grisham strived to be as honest and forthright as possible here. While clearly sympathetic to Williamson (who, while both he and Fritz were convicted, for various reasons is the primary actor here), Grisham doesn't dismiss his problems or history. What really has to be accepted here, though, is that in the murder of Debbie Carter, Williamson was innocent. You don't get to lock someone up or execute them because you think they're a bad person otherwise. Grisham also takes into account how horrific this was for Carter's family. At the same time, the reality of wrongful convictions is something that needs to be talked about honestly, and openly. (Especially, I think, in a country that continues to employ the death penalty, but that's another issue altogether. Grisham doesn't make any overt opinionated statements on capital punishment here, but it certainly doesn't come off well.) It's not easy, because we don't want to inflict further pain on victims and their loved ones, and we don't want to believe we are complicit in such unimaginable injustices. But we need to confront the reasons for why this happens, and continues to happen, probably more often than we realize.

While fair-minded and often sympathetic elsewhere, Grisham is merciless toward the police, prosecutors, and prison officials involved in the case against Fritz and Williamson. While never questioning their belief that the two were guilty (all involved were clearly convinced Fritz and Williamson were murderers), he pulls no punches when it comes to their sloppy police work, misconduct, and outright abusive behaviors that continued even after both men were really irrefutably exonerated. Even beyond their horrible and irresponsible tactics (including coercing confessions, misrepresenting and even arguably doctoring forensic evidence, drumming up as many jailhouse snitches as possible, and drugging and emotionally torturing Williamson in particular), the bottom line was, the police and prosecutors also failed because they were caught up in a particular narrative and refused to acknowledge any evidence that contradicted that. Really to the point of actively ignoring and even changing evidence to force it into their own theory of the crime. This single-mindedness can be pushed by a lot of factors (political pressure to find and convict a suspect, a strong good guys versus bad guys mentality, etc.) but it ultimately means that instead of looking for the truth, they were looking for anything that confirmed their own theory. And Williamson, who suffered from mental illness and substance abuse bordering into mental incompetence, who was in many ways easy not to like – well, they could drug and torture him because they didn't like him, they didn't know how to deal with him, and they had decided he was a killer. Which is, easily, what the criminal justice system can become – a place to toss those society deems unacceptable, or too hard to deal with, or just doesn't want. (Williamson was white, and a member of a well-liked small town family – this is so much worse for those who have criminality presumed on them from birth.) The only way to prevent that is to honest discussion about the nature of criminal punishment, and how convictions happen, and how they are reached, even if it is hard to talk about. And I do think that was ultimately what Grisham's goal was with this book, and what he accomplished.

Also, in the interest of fairness, I know the prosecutor in this case made a website disputing Grisham's account, and I did try to read it. From what I can see, it's no longer online.