The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Townby John Grisham
John Grisham's first work of nonfiction, an exploration of small town justice gone terribly awry, is his most extraordinary legal thriller yet.
In the major league draft of 1971, the first player chosen from the State of Oklahoma was Ron Williamson. When he signed with the Oakland A's, he said goodbye to his hometown of Ada and left to pursue his dreams of big… See more details below
John Grisham's first work of nonfiction, an exploration of small town justice gone terribly awry, is his most extraordinary legal thriller yet.
In the major league draft of 1971, the first player chosen from the State of Oklahoma was Ron Williamson. When he signed with the Oakland A's, he said goodbye to his hometown of Ada and left to pursue his dreams of big league glory.
Six years later he was back, his dreams broken by a bad arm and bad habits drinking, drugs, and women. He began to show signs of mental illness. Unable to keep a job, he moved in with his mother and slept twenty hours a day on her sofa.
In 1982, a 21-year-old cocktail waitress in Ada named Debra Sue Carter was raped and murdered, and for five years the police could not solve the crime. For reasons that were never clear, they suspected Ron Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz. The two were finally arrested in 1987 and charged with capital murder. With no physical evidence, the prosecution’s case was built on junk science and the testimony of jailhouse snitches and convicts. Dennis Fritz was found guilty and given a life sentence. Ron Williamson was sent to death row.
If you believe that in America you are innocent until proven guilty, this book will shock you. If you believe in the death penalty, this book will disturb you. If you believe the criminal justice system is fair, this book will infuriate you.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Grisham's first work of nonfiction focuses on the tragedy of Ron Williamson, a baseball hero from a small town in Oklahoma who winds up a dissolute, mentally unstable Major League washout railroaded onto death row for a hometown rape and murder he did not commit. Judging by this author-approved abridgment, Grisham has chosen to present Williamson's painful story (and that of his equally innocent "co-conspirator," Dennis Fritz) as straightforward journalism, eschewing the more familiar "nonfiction novel" approach with its reconstructed dialogues and other adjustments for dramatic purpose. This has resulted in a book that, while it includes such intriguing elements as murder, rape, detection and judicial injustice, consists primarily of objective reportage, albeit shaded by the now-proven fact of Williamson's innocence. The absence of dialogue or character point of view could make for a rather bland audio. Boutsikaris avoids that by reverting to what might be called old-fashioned round-the-campfire storytelling, treating the lengthy exposition to vocal interpretations, subtle and substantial. He narrates the events leading up to the 1982 rape and murder of a young cocktail waitress with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity, moving on to astonishment at the prosecution's use of deceit and false testimony to convict Williamson and Fritz and, eventually, elation at the exoneration of the two innocent men. Throughout, he maintains an appealing conversational tone, an effect made all the more remarkable by the book's nearly total absence of conversation. Simultaneous release with the Doubleday hardcover. (Nov.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
“A triumph.” —Seattle Times
“Grisham has crafted a legal thriller every bit as suspenseful and fast-paced as his best-selling fiction.” —Boston Globe
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Read an Excerpt
The rolling hills of southeast Oklahoma stretch from Norman across to Arkansas and show little evidence of the vast deposits of crude oil that were once beneath them. Some old rigs dot the countryside; the active ones churn on, pumping out a few gallons with each slow turn and prompting a passerby to ask if the effort is really worth it. Many have simply given up, and sit motionless amid the fields as corroding reminders of the glory days of gushers and wildcatters and instant fortunes.
There are rigs scattered through the farmland around Ada, an old oil town of sixteen thousand with a college and a county courthouse. The rigs are idle, though–the oil is gone. Money is now made in Ada by the hour in factories and feed mills and on pecan farms.
Downtown Ada is a busy place. There are no empty or boarded-up buildings on Main Street. The merchants survive, though much of their business has moved to the edge of town. The cafés are crowded at lunch.
The Pontotoc County Courthouse is old and cramped and full of lawyers and their clients. Around it is the usual hodgepodge of county buildings and law offices. The jail, a squat, windowless bomb shelter, was for some forgotten reason built on the courthouse lawn. The methamphetamine scourge keeps it full.
Main Street ends at the campus of East Central University, home to four thousand students, many of them commuters. The school pumps life into the community with a fresh supply of young people and a faculty that adds some diversity to southeastern Oklahoma.
Few things escape the attention of the Ada Evening News, a lively daily that covers the region and works hard to compete with The Oklahoman, the state’s largest paper. There’s usually world and national news on the front page, then state and regional, then the important items–high school sports, local politics, community calendars, and obituaries.
The people of Ada and Pontotoc County are a pleasant blend of small-town southerners and independent westerners. The accent could be from east Texas or Arkansas, with flat i’s and other long vowels. It’s Chickasaw country. Oklahoma has more Native Americans than any other state, and after a hundred years of mixing many of the white folks have Indian blood. The stigma is fading fast; indeed, there is now pride in the heritage.
The Bible Belt runs hard through Ada. The town has fifty churches from a dozen strains of Christianity. They are active places, and not just on Sundays. There is one Catholic church, and one for the Episcopalians, but no temple or synagogue. Most folks are Christians, or claim to be, and belonging to a church is rather expected. A person’s social status is often determined by religious affiliation.
With sixteen thousand people, Ada is considered large for rural Oklahoma, and it attracts factories and discount stores. Workers and shoppers make the drive from several counties. It is eighty miles south and east of Oklahoma City, and three hours north of Dallas. Everybody knows somebody working or living in Texas.
The biggest source of local pride is the quarter-horse “bidness.” Some of the best horses are bred by Ada ranchers. And when the Ada High Cougars win another state title in football, the town struts for years.
It’s a friendly place, filled with people who speak to strangers and always to each other and are anxious to help anyone in need. Kids play on shaded front lawns. Doors are left open during the day. Teenagers cruise through the night causing little trouble.
Had it not been for two notorious murders in the early 1980s, Ada would have gone unnoticed by the world. And that would have been just fine with the good folks of Pontotoc County.
As if by some unwritten city ordinance, most of the nightclubs and watering holes in Ada were on the periphery of the town, banished to the edges to keep the riffraff and their mischief away from the better folks. The Coachlight was one such place, a cavernous metal building with bad lighting, cheap beer, jukeboxes, a weekend band, a dance floor, and outside a sprawling gravel parking lot where dusty pickups greatly outnumbered sedans. Its regulars were what you would expect–factory workers looking for a drink before heading home, country boys looking for fun, late-night twenty-somethings, and the dance and party crowd there to listen to live music. Vince Gill and Randy Travis passed through early in their careers.
It was a popular and busy place, employing many part-time bartenders and bouncers and cocktail waitresses. One was Debbie Carter, a twenty-one-year-old local girl who’d graduated from Ada High School a few years earlier and was enjoying the single life. She held two other part-time jobs and also worked occasionally as a babysitter. Debbie had her own car and lived by herself in a three-room apartment above a garage on Eighth Street, near East Central University. She was a pretty girl, darkhaired, slender, athletic, popular with the boys, and very independent.
Her mother, Peggy Stillwell, worried that she was spending too much time at the Coachlight and other clubs. She had not raised her daughter to live such a life; in fact, Debbie had been raised in the church. After high school, though, she began partying and keeping later hours. Peggy objected and they fought occasionally over the new lifestyle. Debbie became determined to have her independence. She found an apartment, left home, but remained very close to her mother.
On the night of December 7, 1982, Debbie was working at the Coachlight, serving drinks and watching the clock. It was a slow night, and she asked her boss if she could go off-duty and hang out with some friends. He did not object, and she was soon sitting at a table having a drink with Gina Vietta, a close friend from high school, and some others. Another friend from high school, Glen Gore, stopped by and asked Debbie to dance. She did, but halfway through the song she suddenly stopped and angrily walked away from Gore. Later, in the ladies’ restroom, she said she would feel safer if one of her girlfriends would spend the night at her place, but she did not say what worried her.
The Coachlight began closing early, around 12:30 a.m., and Gina Vietta invited several of their group to have another drink at her apartment. Most said yes; Debbie, though, was tired and hungry and just wanted to go home. They drifted out of the club, in no particular hurry.
Several people saw Debbie in the parking lot chatting with Glen Gore as the Coachlight was shutting down. Tommy Glover knew Debbie well because he worked with her at a local glass company. He also knew Gore. As he was getting in his pickup truck to leave, he saw Debbie open the driver’s door of her car. Gore appeared from nowhere, they talked for a few seconds, then she pushed him away.
Mike and Terri Carpenter both worked at the Coachlight, he as a bouncer, she as a waitress. As they were walking to their car, they passed Debbie’s. She was in the driver’s seat, talking to Glen Gore, who was standing beside her door. The Carpenters waved good-bye and kept walking. A month earlier Debbie had told Mike that she was afraid of Gore because of his temper.
Toni Ramsey worked at the club as a shoe-shine girl. The oil business was still booming in Oklahoma in 1982. There were plenty of nice boots being worn around Ada. Someone had to shine them, and Toni picked up some much-needed cash. She knew Gore well. As Toni left that night, she saw Debbie sitting behind the wheel of her car. Gore was on the passenger’s side, crouching by the open door, outside the car. They were talking in what seemed to be a civilized manner. Nothing appeared to be wrong.
Gore, who didn’t own a car, had bummed a ride to the Coachlight with an acquaintance named Ron West, arriving there around 11:30. West ordered beers and settled in to relax while Gore made the rounds. He seemed to know everyone. When last call was announced, West grabbed Gore and asked him if he still needed a ride. Yes, Gore said, so West went to the parking lot and waited for him. A few minutes passed, then Gore appeared in a rush and got in.
They decided they were hungry, so West drove to a downtown café called the Waffler, where they ordered a quick breakfast. West paid for the meal, just as he’d paid for the drinks at the Coachlight. He had started the night at Harold’s, another club where he’d gone looking for some business associates. Instead, he bumped into Gore, who worked there as an occasional bartender and disc jockey. The two hardly knew each oher, but when Gore asked for a ride to the Coachlight, West couldn’t say no.
West was a happily married father with two young daughters and didn’t routinely keep late hours in bars. He wanted to go home but was stuck with Gore, who was becoming more expensive by the hour. When they left the café, West asked his passenger where he wanted to go. To his mother’s house, Gore said, on Oak Street, just a few blocks to the north. West knew the town well and headed that way, but before they made it to Oak Street, Gore suddenly changed his mind. After riding around with West for several hours, Gore wanted to walk. The temperature was frigid and falling, with a raw wind. A cold front was moving in.
They stopped near the Oak Avenue Baptist Church, not far from where Gore said his mother lived. He jumped out, said thanks for everything, and began walking west.
The Oak Avenue Baptist Church was about a mile from Debbie Carter’s apartment.
Gore’s mother actually lived on the other side of town, nowhere near the church.
Around 2:30 a.m., Gina Vietta was in her apartment with some friends when she received two unusual phone calls, both from Debbie Carter. In the first call, Debbie asked Gina to drive over and pick her up because someone, a visitor, was in her apartment and he was making her feel uncomfortable. Gina asked who it was, who was there? The conversation was cut short by muffled voices and the sounds of a struggle over the use of the phone. Gina was rightfully worried and thought the request strange. Debbie had her own car, a 1975 Oldsmobile, and could certainly drive herself anywhere. As Gina was hurriedly leaving her apartment, the phone rang again. It was Debbie, saying that she had changed her mind, things were fine on her end, don’t bother. Gina again asked who the visitor was, but Debbie changed the subject and would not give his name. She asked Gina to call her in the morning, to wake her so she wouldn’t be late for work. It was an odd request, one Debbie had never made before.
Gina started to drive over anyway, but had second thoughts. She had guests in her apartment. It was very late. Debbie Carter could take care of herself, and besides, if she had a guy in her room, Gina didn’t want to intrude. Gina went to bed and forgot to call Debbie a few hours later.
Around 11:00 a.m. on December 8, Donna Johnson stopped by to say hello to Debbie. The two had been close in high school before Donna moved to Shawnee, an hour away. She was in town for the day to see her parents and catch up with some friends. As she bounced up the narrow outdoor staircase to Debbie’s garage apartment, she slowed when she realized she was stepping on broken glass. The small window in the door was broken. For some reason, her first thought was that Debbie had locked her keys inside and been forced to break a window to get in.
Donna knocked on the door. There was no answer. Then she heard music from a radio inside. When she turned the knob, she realized the door was not locked. One step inside, and she knew something was wrong.
The small den was a wreck–sofa cushions thrown on the floor, clothing scattered about. Across the wall to the right someone had scrawled, with some type of reddish liquid, the words “Jim Smith next will die.”
Donna yelled Debbie’s name; no response. She had been in the apartment once before, so she moved quickly to the bedroom, still calling for her friend. The bed had been moved, yanked out of place, all the covers pulled off. She saw a foot, then on the floor on the other side of the bed she saw Debbie–facedown, nude, bloody, with something written on her back.
Donna froze in horror, unable to step forward, instead staring at her friend and waiting for her to breathe. Maybe it was just a dream, she thought.
She backed away and stepped into the kitchen, where, on a small white table, she saw more words scribbled and left behind by the killer. He could still be there, she suddenly thought, then ran from the apartment to her car. She sped down the street to a convenience store where she found a phone and called Debbie’s mother.
Peggy Stillwell heard the words, but could not believe them. Her daughter was lying on the floor nude, bloodied, not moving. She made Donna repeat what she had said, then ran to her car. The battery was dead. Numb with fear, she ran back inside and called Charlie Carter, Debbie’s father and her ex-husband. The divorce a few years earlier had not been amicable, and the two rarely spoke.
No one answered at Charlie Carter’s. A friend named Carol Edwards lived across the street from Debbie. Peggy called her, told her something was terribly wrong, and asked her to run and check on her daughter. Then Peggy waited and waited. Finally she called Charlie again, and he answered the phone.
Carol Edwards ran down the street to the apartment, noticed the same broken glass and the open front door. She stepped inside and saw the body.
Charlie Carter was a thick-chested brick mason who occasionally worked as a bouncer at the Coachlight. He jumped in his pickup and raced toward his daughter’s apartment, along the way thinking every horrible thought a father could have. The scene was worse than anything he could have imagined.
When he saw her body, he called her name twice. He knelt beside her, gently lifted her shoulder so he could see her face. A bloody washcloth was stuck in her mouth. He was certain his daughter was dead, but he waited anyway, hoping for some sign of life. When there was none, he stood slowly and looked around. The bed had been moved, shoved away from the wall, the covers were missing, the room was in disarray. Obviously, there had been a struggle. He walked to the den and saw the words on the wall, then he went to the kitchen and looked around. It was a crime scene now. Charlie stuffed his hands in his pockets and left.
Donna Johnson and Carol Edwards were on the landing outside the front door, crying and waiting. They heard Charlie say good-bye to his daughter and tell her how sorry he was for what had happened to her. When he stumbled outside, he was crying, too.
“Should I call an ambulance?” Donna asked.
“No,” he said. “Ambulance won’t do no good. Call the police.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
John Grisham is the author of twenty-two novels, one work of non-fiction, a collection of short stories, and a novel for young readers. He lives in Virginia and Mississippi.
- Oxford, Mississippi, and Albemarle County, Virginia
- Date of Birth:
- February 8, 1955
- Place of Birth:
- Jonesboro, Arkansas
- B.S., Mississippi State, 1977; J.D., University of Mississippi, 1981
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I had known Debbie for many years. Her older sister was and still is my very dear friend. Her mother, Peggy, in my opinion is one strong woman. Peggy lives in fear every day that another daughter may die. Losing a child is one thing, but losing one at the hand of such a hanous mind is just overwhelming! Reading the book and knowing the words were all so true, I felt sometines that I would be sick to my stomach. Anyone thinking this book is boring has no heart! I watched this family go through hell, while our own system put Dennis and Ron through a deliberate hell! These law enforcement people are nothing, in my opinion, nothing but scum, a self-righteous piece of meat! I would recommend that every person now alive should read this book and let it go to heart that it could happen to YOU! Anyone can walk up to a police officer and tell him, 'hey, I saw so-& so do this crime,' and your life would become hell! You are no longer innocent, you are guilty in the eyes of the law and by-god you had better have an OJ Simpson attorney and pictures of where you really were and what you were really doing. The fact that John Grissom wrote this book is beyond outstanding. I give him a great 'Thank You'. All through this trial I kept wondering why there was no mention of the fact that a girl called the funeral home Before Debbie was found to see if she was there????? I remember the time that Leona and I went to visit Debbie where she lays in the cemetary. As we were getting into the car to leave a young girl drives up, goes directly to Debbie's grave. Leona went up to her and ask her if she knew Debbie, the girl replies 'no, not really'....what's up with that? Leona was making plans to fly home from Alaska to surprise Debbie, just imagine the shock when she had to fly home to see Debbie bruised, choked, blue. I could go on but I won't. I just pray that God gives peace of heart to Peggy, Leona,Darla and all her family that live with this every day. One final thought. All though the trial I had a feeling that Dennis and Ron were innocent, just as did Peggy, her mother.
Some books aren't "entertaining", but feel important to read. John Grisham is known for his his legal thrillers; in this book, he is more of a legal journalist. This book is moving, scary, and informative, about things like DNA analysis, the death penalty, life inside the prison system, and the loss of freedom. This is the true story of Ron Williamson, from a small town in Oklahoma, who is wrongly convicted of rape and murder. The judicial system goes terribly awry, and anger over the unsolved crime eventually leads the criminal justice system to relentlessly focus on Williamson. At times, the overwhelming amount of detail slows the pace of the story, but the criminal investigation and Justice System moved slowly in dealing with Williamson. Over the course of the book, you witness the physical and emotional deterioration of a man greatly abused by the judicial system. Some books you read, and you hate to get to the end; by the end of this book, I felt nothing but relief!
I have long been a fan of Grisham. This, his novel, about a real life murder and subsequent trial is fantastic reading .. John Grisham is one of the great story tellers, and this is one of his great reads.
John Grisham has managed to write a book that reads like one of his novels and still tells this amazing and true story about "justice" in a small town. Anyone who thinks that justice is always blind is in for a rude awakening. This truth is stranger than fiction story is a warning to all of us about what can happen when our desire to blame someone overwhelms our need to always seek the truth no matter how long that may take. Take your time reading this book you will not be disappointed.
Great read from the first word to the last word.
I enjoyed the book. This could happen in any town. I would like to see it made into a movie
such an interesting book!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This was the first Grisham book I have read and found it very interesting. To think this could happen anywhere. All the underhanded things happening with the law who is supposed to protect us! Great book and great reading.
This is one of the few books of his that I have read and I must say I LOVED it! I do not mean distraction in its rather insulting sense but more on the fact that you wont be able to make yourself do anything else once you start reading it. He sucks you into his world from the begining as you feel feelings for a character that you had no idea you could feel for someone of fictional orgin. As the book continues you are drawn in more and more and then the ending is so unexpected it feels like someone ripped your heart of you years ago and you didn't realize it until now. I personally got so mad that I threw the book on my bed and shook my head as I thought to myself 'WHY?'
This compelling tale, of which I read the last 335 pages nonstop, seems to have inspired Grisham's novel, The Confession, which has a similar plot. But this true story required much more research and at least one assistant to organize and to keep track of all the data gathered from interviews with those involved and from local newspaper accounts. Truth may be more improbable than fiction, but this account requires no suspension of disbelief at all, let alone one like that necessitated by the fictional perpetrator's partial, cane-disposing recovery. This work inevitably reinforces the perceptions that prosecutors (1) rarely seem to fulfill their responsibilities as objective, truth-seeking court officers sworn to protect the rights of defendants, especially innocent ones -- the recent dismissals in the U.S. and France of all charges against the former head of the International Monetary Fund notwithstanding -- and (2) often appear to "get their rocks off" by pursuing victory at all costs and through all available means. The novel is laced with the humor and pervaded by the author's healthy skepticism, and it easily qualifies as one of Grisham's finest achievements.
Completely captivating. Great price for Grisham
Not really my favorite genre, but I thought the book was very fluid, especially considering the amount of time that the author had to cover. The story itself was maddening; it was about a man falsely accused of murder, the path that this man's life took, and the eventual reconsideration of the evidence to free him. Outstanding in parts, very good overall.
I highly recommend this book to everyone, especially those that believe that our justice system is one of the best on this planet. I have read many true crime books in my life and this is one that I can never forget. I have known people that are actually still doing time in prison for something that they have never done or don't even have any knowledge about. This book completely exposed the scandalous and injustice of our socalled sophisticated justice system, this is something that can truely happen to anyone of us normal people and till this day, the same kind of story is happening in our country everyday. I agree with the last review, anyone that says this book is boring has no heart or just simply still living in their own dream that our system is fair and our law enforcement is here to protect and to serve us innocent civilians.
I use to hate reading, but then I found this piece of literature genius. If you like any of Grisham's other books, you're sure to enjoy this book as well!
I loved this book, couldn't put it down. It was so different from what he normally writes, kinda refreshing.
I love John Grisham and had been a HUGE fan of all his fiction novels but I must admit I was sceptical of his first non-fictional book. But out of loyalty, I read it anyway. I am proud to say, he did not disappoint me. This book had me so drawn into the people and events that took place, I felt as if I was watching it unfold. Grisham paints a vivid picture of what can happen when the legal system fail a person. He show what can happen when the public put pressure on the legal system to solve a crime and the legal system don't act in the best interest of justice but of the public. It's not written to undermind the legal system but tell of the truths in it's flaws. What happened to Ron Williamson was so aweful, it haunted me for days. I've worked in criminal justice for over 14 yrs so I know that it's not perfect. But I've never seen misjustice in this manner. This was one of the saddest stories ever told. It open your eyes to things you might not wanna see but feel that you must. Excellent job John!!
This book sadly reflects the inflexible thinking of people. In this circumstance it shows the injustice of our legal (Note: Not Justice system). This is rampart throughout life, politics, and religion.
It's becoming a well known fact in the US - there are two different justice systems, one for those who can afford the best defense, the other for those who cannot. The indigent can be, and often are, treated to a paltry parody of trial and sentencing. Nowhere have I encountered a better example of this than in John Grisham's account of the railroading of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz in the Oklahoma murder case of Debra Carter. Grisham recounts the outrageous details of the case, in which every standard of evidence, from the sloppy work of the local police to the misconduct of attorneys and judges, was blatantly mocked. The trials were both travesties of perjury and corruption, based upon the testimony of snitches and legal system cronies.
Whether or not Ron Williamson was a nice person or a sane one, whether or not he had the potential for violence, he and Dennis Fritz did not commit this murder. The authorities destroyed the lives of two men and their families, while failing to prosecute the true culprit, who was always prominent in the picture, and indeed provided false testimony. Readers can usually ignore "must read" recommendations, but with respect to The Innocent Man, it is "a book that no American can afford to miss." The system of justice upon which our country is based is in danger.
I usually fly through John Grishams novel. This one took me 2 1/2 months to read. I am so glad I finished it. A real eye opener to the injustices served. A must read. Job well done Mr. Grisham.
First John grisham book that put me to sleep. Don't bother with this one.
A lot of twist and turns in this book.. Repetitive in the early part of the book, and it shows how corrupt police can be to get a conviction.. At the end, you won't want to put the book down.. I recommend it but be patient.. As they say, the ends justify the means..
I had to give up...very tedious. I don't know why he wrote this.