My second Grisham for April, and also my non-fiction read for that month (Both the Grishams I read in April, in fact, were different from his usual, the YA Theodore Boone, and this, non-fiction). The Innocent Man I guess would be classified as ‘true crime’ and this was more or less my first foray into the genre (unless Arthur and George, and Conan Doyle’s version of it counts). This book deals with the conviction of and many years spent on death row by an innocent man, Ron Williamson, of the small town of Ada in Oklahoma. Williamson as a child is an excellent baseball player and seen by most as a future star but when his career doesn’t really take off, let alone him achieving any success, he turns to alcohol, drugs and women, not being able to really even hold a job very long. He faces serious charges on more than one occasion. But in the early 1980s, his life is turned upside down when he finds himself a suspect and the accused in murder of a young waitress close to his house, a woman he’s not even met. Along with him, his friend Denis Fritz, a school teacher also finds himself a co-accused (simply for being Williamson’s friend and having taken a trip out of town with him), and on the flimsiest of evidence, and the testimony of snitches who tell any story that will get them an advantage, Ron ends up on death row and Dennis with a life sentence. In prison, Ron is fighting not only for his freedom but also his sanity, for already disturbed before he has even landed in prison, his stay behind bars drives him deeper into depression and into losing his sanity. His is not the only such case as we see, there are many innocents languishing in prison, even on death row, some from the same town because of a mix of circumstances, from inadequate legal help and financial resources to the authorities themselves, who while not as such corrupt (as one would generally understand it), aren’t much concerned with a fair trial, but more so with securing the conviction of people they believe are guilty (not necessarily based on any evidence).
This book was for me a very disconcerting read. Just the thought, no, in fact proof that, not one or two but many many innocents end up in prison, even on death row as a result of botched up investigations, poor legal aid, and trials that are far from fair, is disturbing. That there are investigators who seem to begin with ‘gut feelings’ and then towards collecting evidence or so-called evidence that can convict the person they have these feelings about (conveniently overlooking what doesn’t help them) rather than thoroughly investigating the case, and even judges who aren’t as concerned with ensuring a fair trial as they ought to be, and all this in a system which supposedly proceeds on the presumption of innocence (while in fact perhaps it is in a sense a presumption of guilt in practice)―what can this do but shake one’s faith in the system (The blurb behind my copy puts it more aptly, ‘It is a book that will terrify anyone who believes in the presumption of innocence…’). Williamson was far from the ideal person, had made many mistakes, committed crimes even; he was a mess, but did he need to suffer as much as he did because of it? The journey is no easier for the victims’ families who believe the culprits have been caught, punished only to be told that these weren’t the ones after all. What are they to believe? What if a mistake was made again the second time? How do they know? And even if the suspect’s innocence is finally proved, does his or her life ever get back to ‘normal’ again? Not everyone will stop looking at them with suspicious eyes, what reparation can they get for a life that can never be ‘normal’ (besides all of what they’ve been put through)? While this book was about a case in the 1980s when aspects of evidence weren’t as strong or developed as today (particularly, no DNA testing), one can’t help but wonder that even this could well be botched up just as things back then, though may be in a different way. Reality can certainly be far scarier than a horror story.
The book, I thought, was well written―it certainly held my attention throughout (I have read reviews that this one is not as good as In Cold Blood but since I haven’t read that one I can make no comparisons), and yet, while I wanted to read on to see how things would turn out, there were times I just put it aside because I kept feeling so unsettled reading it. But then that was probably the point of bringing these cases before us, to show us how far from perfect this system can be and is, and how it can turn lives upside down for no reason whatsoever. For that alone, it is worth a read.