John Grisham’s latest legal thriller is unlike anything he has written before. Gone are the fictional characters and the larger by life stories; of the twists, intrigue and court room drama. In there place he provides a real life tale of corruption, incompetence and injustice. Grisham’s first work of non-fiction is nevertheless a hard-hitting white-knuckle ride through the inadequacies of the American legal system. It is regrettably a story we have heard all too often in recent years of a system stifled by the almost desperate need to convict someone, anyone!
In Grisham’s work he recalls the shocking rape and murder of a 21-year-old cocktail waitress in a town in Oklahoma. For five years the police were unable to solve the crime yet based on gut feeling they determined that the murderers were Ron Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz. The only problem was that they did not have any evidence or real basis for such a determination. That was not however to stop them. With the assistance of junk science and the ever “reliable” testimonies of jailhouse snitches and convicts the two were charged. Both were found guilty. Fritz to life imprisonment and Williamson to death row. It is beyond comprehension to believe for one moment that these two men had anything whatsoever to do with the crime, but unfortunately in the American legal system that is not always enough.
Whilst this book is centred on the story of Williamson and Fritz other tales of incompetence and complacency in the US legal system are touched upon; be it the police, the scientists or even the courts themselves. Allowing controversial confessions; the wanton disregard to justice; to evidence tampering and to police brutality. This is a horrifying examination of a system in decay.
Whilst Grisham should be praised for writing such a book and giving his “celebrity” support to the on-going debate in the US about its legal system; he must however be criticised on this occasion for his style of writing. The book is written in a narrative almost statement-esque fashion. Grisham had the opportunity to interview most of the leading characters and read the crime reports, yet you get that feeling that perhaps as he was writing a non-fiction novel for the first time he felt somewhat restricted from writing with any passion or feeling. The prose is thus much more matter of fact; distant, almost unnecessarily objective in its style. As such it is sometimes difficult to feel the genuine emotion for the characters as we might expect in such a real life tale. We are left wanting to understand Williamson and Fritz: their pain; their hopelessness and rather disappointing Grisham does not oblige us with this insight.
Nevertheless this is a terrifying tale which reminds us once more that the maxim that you are innocent until proven guilty in America only applies if you have either money or mental solitude.
The Innocent Man by John Grisham is published by Century for £18.99 – ISBN 978-1 8441-3790-9