Just over 10 years ago, I read John Grisham's first work of non-fiction, "The Innocent Man," published in 2006. It's described on the inside of the dust jacket as "an exploration of small-town justice gone terribly awry". I'm a big Grisham fan having read 29 of his books so far. The only book of his I would not recommend is "Playing for Pizza".
Why am I reading "The Innocent Man" again? Besides the fact that it's a very interesting story, my reason is that in the last few years I've become hooked on watching NBC's "Dateline". There have been quite a few Dateline episodes that have dealt with innocent people jailed for crimes they didn't commit and many involved police, prosecutors, etc. who either screwed up the investigation or when presented with new exculpatory evidence refused to admit they were wrong. They'd say something like "a jury of their peers found them guilty. It's not my place to overturn that verdict". But would that jury have reached the same verdict if all the evidence was available? The last episode I saw on this issue was about two brothers who spent 25 years in jail for a crime they didn't commit. Dateline's been around since 1992 and I can't say why I had never watched it. Looking for more things to keep me occupied in my retirement led me to give it a try.
The Grisham book is primarily about an Oklahoma native, Ron Williamson, who spent about 11 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit (one of the reasons I'm against the death penalty. I wonder how many innocent people have been executed in this country). Ron was a high school baseball star who was good enough to get a $50,000 signing bonus from the Oakland A's in 1971. Some compared him to fellow Oklahoma native Mickey Mantle. Injuries, drinking and mental issues derailed his career. His comeback attempts ended when he was released by a low level Yankee minor league team after the 1977 season.
He was convicted of murdering a woman based on a half-baked eyewitness ID by a man who actually had a confrontation with the victim the night of her death. That man was not fingerprinted and no hair or saliva samples were taken although samples were taken from quite a few other friends and acquaintances of the woman. The police put together a list of 23 people and interviewed most of them. No one recalled seeing Ron Williamson that night. He was convicted and sent to death row where he spent 11 years until he was exonerated with help from the Innocence Project (give them a google). Another man, Dennis Fritz, was also convicted and given life in prison. He too was exonerated.
I can't imagine going through what Ron Williamson and many others have endured. Besides loss of freedom and terrible living conditions, there were a few sadistic guards he had to deal with.
The Innocence Project, founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck at Cardozo School of Law, exonerates the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
The Innocence Project's mission is to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.