by John Grisham. New York: Doubleday, 2006. 368pp. Hardcover. $28.95. ISBN: 9780385517232.

Reviewed by Jack E. Call, Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University. Email: jcall [at] RADFORD.EDU.


John Grisham’s legal novels are well-known to avid readers of that literary genre. THE INNOCENT MAN is Grisham’s first (and so far only) venture into non-fiction. It tells the story of Ron Williamson, an Oklahoma boy with great promise as a professional baseball player. However, the demons of drink, drugs, and mental illness prevented Williamson from fulfilling that potential. Eventually, Williamson’s demons also destroyed his marriage, prevented him from holding a decent job, and resulted in his development of a local reputation as an erratic, unpredictable man who could be likable at times but was generally not to be trusted. When a young female acquaintance, Debbie Carter, was found raped and murdered in her garage apartment in his hometown of Ada, Oklahoma, in 1982, it was not surprising that the police eventually considered him a person of interest.

For many readers, THE INNOCENT MAN will interest them as a story about a man whose promise as a person is unrealized and who becomes a victim of the criminal justice system. Their interest will lie in Ron Williamson, the person. For others, the interest lies in the story the case tells about the criminal justice system. As such, it can be added to a growing list of stories told about justice gone awry.

THE INNOCENT MAN paints a picture of a seriously flawed criminal justice system. While virtually no component of the system portrayed in the book emerges unscathed, it is the police who look particularly bad, with the prosecution running a close second. The police did a reasonably good job of investigating the murder scene (although at trial, Williamson’s defense attorney pointed out in his cross-examination of one of the primary investigators that they had failed to look for fingerprints in several logical places). Numerous people who knew Debbie Carter or had been at the night club where she was last seen alive in public were interviewed. None of them mentioned anything about Ron Williamson.

Glen Gore should have been an obvious suspect. He had been seen with Debbie hours before her death, talking with her at her car in the parking lot of the night club she had attended that evening. At least one witness said that Debbie was seen pushing Gore away, although others reported seeing nothing unusual occur between the two. At least two people indicated that Debbie had told them that [*603] she was afraid of Gore. (Unfortunately, Grisham is a bit unclear as to how much of this information was known to the police. He makes it clear that one person called the police and reported to them that Debbie had a running dispute with Gore about a windshield wiper that she thought Gore had stolen from her car and that she was afraid of Gore. It is unclear how much of the other evidence connecting Gore to Debbie on the night of her murder was uncovered by the police. However, if the police were unaware of much of this evidence, they obviously could have found it, since Grisham was able to find it).

The police apparently focused on Williamson as a suspect when, three months after the murder, Robert Deatherage told the police that he had just finished a short stint in the local jail, where he had shared a cell with Williamson. He indicated that Williamson had seemed uneasy every time the subject of the Carter murder had come up in conversation. (Grisham does not indicate why the police interviewed Deatherage). The interest of the police in Williamson as a suspect was increased further because he kept weird hours, had engaged in much erratic behavior, lived a short distance from Debbie Carter’s apartment, and had recently been acquitted on two rape charges. When Williamson reported “dream confessions” about Debbie’s murder (“I dreamed that I . . .”) on two separate occasions to a jailer and to two police interrogators, he became their primary suspect.

Although there was little to no evidence suggesting more than one perpetrator, the investigating officers were convinced that there were two murderers. They decided a friend of Williamson, Dennis Fritz, must have been involved. The evidence against him was not strong, but they convinced him to take a polygraph examination. The examiner found his answers evasive. Given the evidence against Fritz, as described by Grisham, it is difficult to see how the police thought they even had probable cause to arrest Fritz, much less proof beyond a reasonable doubt to convict. Nevertheless, he was arrested, tried (before Williamson), and convicted.

The case against Fritz consisted of guilt by association with Williamson (although the case against Williamson was not presented to the Fritz jury); testimony from three jailhouse snitches; forensic evidence that Fritz was a non-secretor (a person whose blood type cannot be determined from bodily fluids, which is true for about 20% of the population); and forensic evidence that hair samples found at the murder scene were consistent with Fritz’ hair. As weak as this evidence was, it was further weakened by the fact that the forensic expert who testified that Fritz was a non-secretor was far from certain that the killer (or killers) were non-secretors. In addition, the first lab analyst to examine the hair samples found at the murder scene concluded that those samples were only microscopically consistent with Debbie Carter’s hair and not with any samples taken from other persons (a fact that was never shared with the defense). This result required analysis from another technician, who ultimately concluded that some of the samples were consistent with Fritz’ hair. It took this expert over two years to do his analysis, and he did so with the knowledge that when he was analyzing Fritz’ hair, Fritz was a suspect in the case. (Other hair samples that he analyzed were not marked as having come from a suspect). [*604]

The prosecution’s case may have been strengthened when it was able to prove during cross-examination of Dennis Fritz that he had lied to the school system when he indicated on his job application that he had no criminal convictions. In fact, he had once been convicted of growing marijuana. (When the police had discovered this fact during its investigation, they called the junior high school where Fritz was working and told them that he was under investigation for murder and had lied about his marijuana-growing conviction. The school system fired him immediately). The prosecution also established that Fritz had lied about the marijuana-growing conviction on an application for a gun permit. Although this testimony may have strengthened the prosecution’s case a little by showing that Fritz had lied on at least two occasions, the case in chief from the prosecution was so weak to start with that it is difficult to imagine how the case survived a motion for a directed verdict from the defense, much less provided a sufficient basis for a jury’s conclusion that Fritz was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury sentenced him to life in prison.

The prosecution was now ready to try Williamson. Much of its case consisted of the same evidence presented against Dennis Fritz. However, the prosecution had a couple of advantages that it lacked at the Fritz trial. First, it had the “dream confessions” that Williamson had related to the police and a jailer. Second, Williamson was clearly mentally ill and prone to exhibiting behavior in the courtroom that did not make a good impression on the jury. For example, when a jailhouse snitch testified against Williamson, he interrupted her more than once, calling her a liar and threatening her.

The prosecution may also have benefited from the fact that when Glen Gore was called to testify, he refused to answer questions. His reasons for doing so were unclear (he was in prison on charges unrelated to the Carter murder, and he may have been concerned about the impression he would have created with his fellow inmates if he had “snitched” on Williamson). Since he had testified at the Williamson preliminary hearing, however, and had been subjected to cross-examination there, the trial judge allowed that testimony to be read to the jury. Such testimony might not be as forceful as in-court testimony, but this was no doubt more than counteracted by the fact that at the preliminary hearing, Williamson’s defense attorney had not cross-examined Williamson about his criminal record of violent offenses and his own whereabouts on the night of the murder. Consequently, the jury heard none of this information.

Although the prosecution’s case was no doubt a little stronger against Williamson than it had been against Fritz, it was still quite weak. Yet it yielded the same result – a unanimous jury vote for conviction after deliberations of only six hours (including a lunch break). And this time the jury recommended a sentence of death.

To this point in the case, the criminal justice system had done little to inspire confidence. The police failed to investigate the possibility that the last [*605] person seen with Debbie Carter, a person with a propensity for violence and known to be a person she feared, might have killed her. The police had made misrepresentations to suspects and pressured them and other witnesses, although that pressure may not have risen to the level of coercion.

One witness, who lived not far from Dennis Fritz, had heard some noise outside his home very late one night in December (the month of Debbie’s murder). When he looked outside, he saw two men washing themselves off with his garden hose. The police were convinced that this was Fritz and Williamson washing Debbie’s blood off after killing her. However, the witness could not remember what night this was, nor could he say for certain who the two men were, even after being shown pictures of Fritz and Williamson. Not long before Williamson’s trial, Grisham indicates that one of the primary police investigators visited the witness, trying to suggest details that would strengthen the witness’ testimony. When the witness declined to make his answers more helpful to the prosecution, Grisham says that the police officer “brushed his coat away from his hip so [the witness] could see his service revolver . . . and said that [the witness] might get lead poisoning if his memory didn’t improve” (p.193).

The prosecution did not fare much better. It proceeded with two murder prosecutions on very limited evidence. It made extensive use of testimony from jailhouse snitches whose credibility was, at the very least, questionable. It failed to question why the police did not investigate Glen Gore’s possible involvement in Debbie Carter’s murder. Either the prosecution or the police labeled the hair samples of Fritz and Williamson as samples from suspects. The prosecution placed great reliance on the forensic analysis of the hair samples, even though one of its experts had failed to conclude that the samples that came from Fritz and Williamson were consistent with hair found at the murder scene. It failed to share this latter piece of information with the defense. It also failed to share with the defense a videotaped interrogation of Williamson in which he had steadfastly maintained his innocence.

The forensic experts engaged in some questionable activities also. It seems inappropriate for one analyst to re-examine evidence when another competent analyst failed to arrive at the result desired by the prosecution. It is also questionable that hair samples should be analyzed when they are known by the analyst to have come from a suspect. The second hair sample analyst also testified at trial that the samples taken from Fritz and Williamson “matched” some hair found at the murder scene. Virtually all court decisions agree that hair sample analysis is too imperfect a science to permit use of the term “match” (“consistent with” is the term that courts allow). The trial judge upheld an objection to the expert’s use of this term, but the jury had heard it and the damage was done.

Perhaps the most egregious action taken by a forensic expert in this case involved the examination of a bloody palm print found on the wall in Debbie Carter’s [*606] apartment. The initial forensic analysis concluded that the palm print was not that of Fritz, Williamson, or Debbie Carter. This was a potential problem for the prosecution, because the palm print almost certainly had to have been left either by the victim or one of the killers. Since it was not Debbie’s and did not come from Fritz and Williamson, it could be argued persuasively that the true killer had still not been found. The prosecution’s solution to this dilemma was to have Debbie Carter’s body exhumed and her palm print examined again. The forensic expert who did the initial analysis did it again and changed his mind, concluding that the bloody print on the wall was indeed Debbie Carter’s. In his 24-year career, this forensic expert had never changed his mind before.

The trial judge can also be criticized. When it became apparent during the cross-examination of one of the investigating officers that the videotaped interrogation in which Williamson maintained his innocence had not been shared with the defense (a clear violation of the Supreme Court case, BRADY v. MARYLAND), the judge decided not to rule on the defense’s motion for a retrial until after the trial. After trial, he ruled that withholding the videotape was not a violation of BRADY. As we have seen, the hair sample analysis was critical to the prosecution’s case, but the trial judge refused to appoint an expert for the defense to permit it to conduct its own hair sample analysis. Perhaps the most questionable action taken by the trial judge was his failure to require that Williamson be examined for mental competency. While the responsibility to raise this issue lay primarily with the defense attorney, the trial judge had observed so many instances of strange and erratic behavior on the part of Ron Williamson that he almost certainly should have ordered a competency evaluation on his own initiative.

One of the things that the literature on wrongful convictions makes abundantly clear is that, once a defendant has been convicted at a trial when there are serious questions regarding actual guilt, the likelihood that the defendant will ever be exonerated by the court system becomes extremely slim. Appellate courts only hear legal issues and do not generally review facts (such as the guilt or innocence of the defendant). Thus, Ron Williamson was clearly facing an uphill battle. However, it was exactly at this point that the system began to perform better.

First, Williamson was represented by a series of indigent defense counsel (working as part of the public defender system in Oklahoma) who took their responsibilities very seriously indeed. All of them performed their duties conscientiously (although one might question whether Williamson should have had five different attorneys assigned to his case at various stages, with each new attorney being required to familiarize himself or herself with the case from scratch).

In spite of the conscientious efforts of these attorneys, they lost all their motions in the state appellate courts. (The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals did conclude that errors had been made at Williamson’s trial, but it [*607] also concluded that they were all harmless errors that had not affected the verdict). This left the case at the stage where federal habeas corpus relief could be sought, and Williamson was assigned yet another attorney, Janet Chesley, to handle this proceeding.

Habeas corpus petitions are notoriously unappealing to federal judges (in no small part because most of them are crafted by prison inmates). However, the petition put together by Chesley was well-written and organized and immediately caught the eye of the US Magistrate assigned to review it by US District Judge Frank Seay. Her petition focused on the performance of the defense attorney (a common tactic because it is a back-handed way of arguing the defendant’s innocence), the failure to evaluate Williamson’s mental competency, and the reliability of the hair sample analysis. The magistrate asked two law clerks in Judge Seay’s office review the petition as well. All three read the entire trial transcript and agreed that Williamson had not received a fair trial. After lengthy consideration, Williamson’s execution was stayed, five days before it was to take place.

One year after granting the stay of execution, Judge Seay granted Williamson’s habeas petition and ordered a new trial. Several bases for the decision were cited, but the most important were the ineffectiveness of Williamson’s trial attorney, admission of the hair sample analysis, denial of the defense request for its own hair sample expert, and failure of the trial court to look into Williamson’s mental competency. The state appealed, and the order for retrial was upheld.

At retrial, a competency hearing was conducted, and Williamson was found incompetent to stand trial. The defense knew that Williamson might well become competent with the assistance of medication, so it prepared for a new trial. It persuaded Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project to take on the case because it concluded that much forensic evidence in the case had not been properly analyzed. In early 1999, the semen found on Debbie Carter and at the crime scene was subjected to the latest DNA technology. That analysis excluded both Williamson and Fritz as sources of the semen. The prosecution still resisted a motion to dismiss, however, and insisted that the hair samples be analyzed also. When that DNA analysis also failed to match Williamson and Fritz, the prosecution finally agreed to dismiss the charges against both, and they were released.

In an interesting post-script, the DNA analyses suggested that the semen found in Debbie Carter’s vagina was that of Glen Gore, who was in prison for another offense. When he heard from national reporters that they wanted to talk with him, he surmised that he was now a suspect in the Carter murder. (Two of Williamson’s attorneys had questioned Gore, suggesting that they thought he might have killed Debbie Carter). However, prison authorities had not been informed of this, so they did not remove him from an out-of-prison work detail to which he was assigned. The day after hearing from the reporters, Gore simply walked away from his work [*608] site. Six days later he turned himself in. Four years later he was convicted of Debbie Carter’s murder and awarded a death sentence (later reduced to life imprisonment as a result of appellate proceedings).

John Grisham is both a storyteller and a lawyer. However, it is the storyteller that dominates this book. That makes the book very readable, but it detracts from the usefulness of the book as a pedagogical tool. The book has no footnotes (or index, for that matter), and Grisham seldom tells us the source of his information. For example, the story about the police officer who told a witness that he “might get lead poisoning if his memory did not improve,” reflects very badly on the police. However, the reader does not know why Grisham thinks this incident occurred, so it is very difficult for the reader to assess the reliability of the story. (Presumably the witness in question was the source, but Grisham simply does not share that information with the reader). Sometimes Grisham points to damning information that seems to reflect negatively on someone involved in the case, but his description of the information leaves the reader uncertain as to who knew what and when. For example, he is very critical of the police failure to investigate Glen Gore as a suspect. As described earlier, there was a lot of information pointing to Gore, but Grisham never makes it clear how much of that information was actually known to the police or when it was known to them. In addition, Grisham sometimes refers to cases or studies without providing cites to them. For all these reasons, THE INNOCENT MAN would be of questionable utility in a course on the judicial process, criminal procedure, or wrongful convictions.

BRADY v. MARYLAND, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Jack E. Call.