Synopses & Reviews
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 As, 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.
"Grisham has written both an American tragedy and his strongest legal thriller yet, all the more gripping because it happens to be true. (Grade: B+)" Entertainment Weekly
"Compared with other works in its genre, The Innocent Man is less spectacular than sturdy. It is a reminder not only of how propulsively Mr. Grisham's fiction is constructed but of how difficult it is to make messy reality behave in clear, streamlined fashion." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"[Grisham's] prose here isn't as good as it is in his novels he too often misuses 'like' for 'as,' and the exclamation points he inserts as ironic asides are clumsy but his reasoning is sound and his passion is contagious." Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
"Grisham has crafted a legal thriller every bit as suspenseful and fast-paced as his best-selling fiction....An Innocent Man is a page-turning and chilling descent into one innocent man's Kafkaesque nightmare of injustice and madness." Boston Globe
"Thanks to his abundant storytelling skills, the author delivers an account that is as vivid as the Grisham fictional fare sold at airport kiosks but it is also, alas, just as oversimplified as his novels, and it distorts the justice system in the same way." The Wall Street Journal
"John Grisham's first work of nonfiction, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, tells a deeply troubling story about wrongful criminal convictions, the denial of basic constitutional rights and the unjust imposition of the death penalty." The Oregonian
"Despite my lack of enthusiasm for Grisham's fiction, I wish The Innocent Man had been a novel. Why? Because the true story Grisham tells is awful to contemplate." Denver Post
"Grisham [speaks out about the injustice of capital punishment] in a voice loud and clear and through a book that fully explains why the nation needs to reexamine the process by which we sentence criminals to be executed." BookReporter.com
Presents the real-life case of Ron Williamson, a mentally ill former baseball player who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the 1982 murder of a 21-year-old woman in his Oklahoma hometown.
The best-selling author of The Last Juror, The Runaway Jury, A Time to Kill, and other tales of legal suspense presents his first work of nonfiction, in a compelling legal thriller. 1,500,000 first printing.
John Grisham's first work of nonfiction, an exploration of small town justice gone terribly awry, is his most extraordinary legal thriller yet. Those who believe in "innocent until proven guilty" or that the criminal justice system is fair will be shocked and infuriated.
About the Author
John Grisham is the author of The Broker, Skipping Christmas, The Summons, A Painted House, The Brethren, The Testament, The Street Lawyer, The Partner, The Runaway Jury, The Rainmaker, The Chamber, The Client, The Pelican Brief, The Firm, and A Time to Kill. He lives with his family in Mississippi and Virginia.
Reading Group Guide
1. What were your initial impressions of Ron Williamson? How did your attitudes toward him shift throughout The Innocent Man
2. Discuss the setting of Ada, Oklahoma, as if it were one of the characters in the book. What were your opinions as Grisham described Adas landscape-a vibrant small town dotted with relics of a long-gone oil boom-and the regions history of Wild West justice?
3. In your opinion, why was Glen Gore overlooked as a suspect? Were mistakes made as a result of media pressure to find justice for Debbie Carter and her family? How did Dennis Fritzs knowledge of the drug scandal affect the manhunt? Was injustice in Ada simply due to arrogance?
4. How was Dennis different from Ron? Why didnt Dennis confess, while Tommy Ward and Karl Fotenot did? Did refusing to confess help Dennis in the long run?
5. As you read about the court proceedings, what reactions did you have to the trial-by-jury process? Have you served on a jury, or been a defendant before a jury? If so, how did your experience compare to the one described in The Innocent Man?
6. What are the most significant factors in getting a fair trial, or an intelligent investigation? Does personality matter more than logic in our judicial system? How would you have voted if you had heard the cases against Ron and Dennis?
7. How does new crime-lab technology make you feel about the history of convictions in America? What might future generations use to replace lie-detector tests or fingerprint databases? What are the limitations of technology in solving crimes?
8. How did the early 1980s time period affect the way Debbies last day unfolded, and the way her killer was hunted? Would a small-town woman be less likely to trust a Glen Gore today than twenty-five years ago? Were Rons high-rolling days in Tulsa spurred by a culture of experimentation and excess?
9. How did the descriptions of Oklahomas death row compare to what you had previously believed? What distinctions in treatment should be made between death-row inmates and the rest of the prison population?
10. What is the status of the death penalty in the state where you live? What have you discovered about the death penalty as a result of reading The Innocent Man?
11. In his authors note, Grisham says that he discovered the Ada saga while reading Rons obituary. What research did he draw on in creating a portrait of this man he never knew? In what ways does The Innocent Man read like a novel? What elements keep the storytelling realistic?
12. Discuss the aftermath of Rons and Denniss exoneration. How did you balance your reaction to the triumph of Rons large cash settlement (a rare victory in such civil suits) and the fact that it would have to be paid for by local taxpayers?
13. The Dreams of Ada (back in print from Broadway Books) figures prominently in Rons experience, though the men convicted in that murder are still behind bars. What is the role of journalists in ensuring public safety? Why are they sometimes able to uncover truths that law enforcement officials dont see?
14. Grisham is an avid baseball fan. How did his descriptions of Ron playing baseball serve as a metaphor for Rons rise and fall, and his release?
15. To what extent do you believe mental health should be a factor in determining someones competence to stand trial, or in determining guilt or innocence?
16. In his authors note, Grisham writes, “Ada is a nice town, and the obvious question is: When will the good guys clean house?” What are the implications of this question for communities far beyond Ada? What can you do to help “clean house” in Americas judicial system?
The Innocent Man unfolds with the taut suspense, intriguing characters, and vivid scenes that have made John Grisham one of the most widely read novelists in America. But this time, hes reporting on actual events-and a courtroom drama that results in a real-life nightmare for all the wrong people. Sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit, Ron Williamson experienced a flagrant miscarriage of justice so regrettably common in criminal prosecutions across the country. His story will leave you hungering for answers; whether you read it with a group of friends or as part of a forum, The Innocent Man is not a book you will want to keep to yourself. This guide is designed to enhance your discussion of Ron Williamsons story, furthering the conversation begun by John Grisham. We hope it will enhance your experience of this chilling walk with the accused.