The Innocent Man

June 7, 2008
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In his first non-fiction book, John Grisham chooses an eleventh hour story: one that occurs in America and one that the author clearly implies could happen to anyone. In comparison to his fiction, this book is more layered, more profound, and every bit a page-turner. With his simple and straightforward prose, Grisham has written one of his finest books - and it happens to be true.


The Innocent Man, which is about a major injustice that occurs in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma, starts with the murder of a young woman who is brutally raped and then killed. The murder is very disturbing, but Grisham doesn't embellish it with unnecessary details, making for an uncomfortable yet bearable first chapter.

Meticulously researched, The Innocent Man makes it feel as if the reader is really there in Ada. With Grisham's extensive backgrounds of the major characters, they seem less flat and superficial and more like people who could be could be rooted for. This, in turn, makes for a more involved and interesting read. In Grisham's fiction, the characters appear to be flat and unrealistic. The “characters” in The Innocent Man could not be any more different, but Grisham still could do more to make them more real.

Ron Williamson, a former town hero who was to become the next Mickey Mantel before an unfortunate down spiral of alcoholism and a major chemical brain imbalance, is a suspect of the murder. Regardless of evidence that points to another man, he is pursued as a major lead. Based on their opinion that Williamson is a bar-attending, woman- chasing lowlife, he is tried and convicted of the rape and murder of Debbie Sue Carter. The officials are oblivious to the fact that “snitches” or convicts who want to get out of prison have testified only for their own benefit.

Despite this book being very simple and easy to read, this story is exciting enough that it keeps the reader interested and consumed. There is a problem, however, with the sheer number of people Grisham includes in this book. Instead of being called The Innocent Man, it should have been called The Innocent Men. The other people who are much more than mentioned in this book seem to be more charismatic and likeable. Despite Williamson being a sad, unbalanced man, it is hard to conjure up a sympathy that makes you really care about him until his very last days. He was not exactly proactive with treating his mental condition, and with every one of his actions, there seemed to be a selfish underlying motive.

Regardless of all that, Grisham has painted a story of great magnitude. It deserves to be told. He gives us the facts, but that is all. There seems to be that more could be done to really make you feel for the characters.

Grisham truly makes a statement on the flaws of the justice system. It contains several similarities to the unfair trial of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, as both texts both show how a prejudiced jury and crooked officials can convict an innocent man and let a guilty one go free. The District Attorney in The Innocent Man didn't have enough evidence to convict Williamson, so he made some up. The presiding judge failed to disclose that he knew more about Williamson than what was let on. The jury was selected in Ada, and they failed to have absolute impartiality to the case and the suspect.

This is a true-crime novel at its finest. Not written just to shock or disgust the reader, it is a book about real people for real people. It is also an indictment of the justice system, showing how flawed it is. The Innocence Project, a program which helps get innocent people out of prison based on DNA testing, is a major part of the book. It has helped exonerate more than 200 people. Their website elaborates much more on what they do, and they have a profile for each person who they have helped get exonerated. The Innocence Project could be a solution to the unfair side of the justice system by bringing to light the innocence of wrongly convicted murderers and rapists.

Grisham is a really experienced if too commercial a writer. He can weave a fantastic story, but sometimes this story feels as if Grisham just happened to see Ron Williamson's obituary in the New York Times and decided “Oh, that would make a major bestseller.” He seems to stay on the side lines of the story and not get really into it. Instead of interviewing his subjects, it is written as if he has compiled a ton of research from secondary sources. An author should really dive into what they are telling. Grisham just doesn't seem too invested in it. It is superior to his fiction, but Grisham should have chosen a story that he really was passionate about and tried to dig deeper into people's motives and multidimensionality.

The Innocent Man comes highly recommended for those seeking a realistic and unvarnished view of the justice system, readers of John Grisham's fiction books, and for those who just want to read an interesting yet easy book.





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cookadf said...
Dec. 7, 2008 at 7:33 pm
you are a really good writer.
 
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