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Author John Grisham Finds Troubled Story Behind “Innocent Man”

Hannah Woolf

John Grisham

Photo by Dan Addison/U.Va. News Services

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Best-selling author and Charlottesville-area resident John Grisham spoke to a riveted audience at the Law School September 14 about his latest work, The Innocent Man.

Nineteenth on Grisham’s list of publications, the book aligns with Grisham’s well-known theme of legal drama but takes one major detour from his past work: it is nonfiction. The project forced Grisham to take a hard look at a troubled system in which the consequences of a lost court case are all too real.

“Even if you support the death penalty, you cannot support the death penalty system as it stands in the U.S.,” Grisham said. “My one hope is that people realize this system we have is simply too unfair to continue.”

Grisham had not intended to base his next novel on a true story. This one started out “innocently enough,” as Grisham put it, while he was browsing the New York Times obituary section two years ago. His attention was drawn to the headline that announced, “Ronald Williamson, freed from death row, dies at the age of 51.”

Captivated by the significance of this simple sentence, Grisham read further to learn that the deceased had spent 12 years on death row, was finally exonerated of his crime in 1999, and was now dead five years later from cirrhosis of the liver.

“After reading the entire obituary, I knew it had the makings of a much longer story,” Grisham said. To find that story, his first step was calling Williamson’s sister, Annette, in Tulsa, who had been mentioned in the obituary.

“It took me about 10 minutes to convince her it wasn’t a crank call,” Grisham said. Annette eventually shared the full story, at which point Grisham said he “realized the obituary had hardly scratched the surface.”

Not only did the tale fascinate him, but Grisham also felt quickly connected with the man who would become his book’s main character.

“He and I were born about the same time, both dreamed of being great baseball players,” Grisham said. While baseball took a secondary role in Grisham’s life, however, he learned that Williamson “thought he could be the next Mickey Mantle.”

Yet after enjoying some early professional success, even playing with the New York Yankees, Williamson fell miles away from his dream of baseball greatness. Injury and an irresponsible lifestyle contributed to his final departure from the game at age 25, when he packed up to go back home to Ada, Okla.

Williamson fell into a deep depression, living at his mother’s house, sleeping up to 20 hours a day, and despairing endlessly over his failure. He was soon diagnosed with bipolar disorder but never given proper medication or treatment; instead, Grisham said, Williamson was “self-medicated,” which meant that he fought his pain with drugs and alcohol. The downward spiral continued through Williamson’s mid- and late-twenties, when his life finally hit an even more desperate low in 1982.

That year, a 21-year-old waitress was brutally raped and murdered in Ada. Rather than pursuing as a suspect the person last seen with the victim, the police turned their attention to Williamson. Aided by hair evidence and snitch testimony, the police spent five years building a case against the former baseball player.

“The cops were convinced for years that Ron was the murderer, but they hadn’t been able to pin the crime on him,” Grisham explained.

When the police finally gathered enough evidence to charge Williams, the suspect was still in a dire mental state.

At this point, he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in addition to his prior battles with bipolar disorder and depression.

“Untreated, unmedicated, Ron was charged with capital murder,” Grisham said, beginning to hint more strongly at the gross injustice of the treatment of the man’s case.

Williamson’s court-appointed lawyer was a legend, a blind man named Barney known for his quick wit and powerful memory. Unfortunately, the attorney was now “past his prime,” Grisham said, and the simple trick of dragging proceedings until 3 p.m. would catch him at his napping hour and render him useless.

His attorney’s failings were exacerbated by Williamson’s bad behavior. Denied access to his medication by prison guards, Williamson became “a wild man” in the courtroom. Considering the defendant’s mental illness and his anger at his inability to prove his innocence, the behavior should not have been surprising. But to the jury, knocking over tables and prompting brawls was hardly the behavior of an innocent man. Worse yet, Williamson’s efforts to convey his innocence overwhelmingly backfired. Grisham said Williamson would yell at witnesses and the judge, “Stop lying! Judge, make him stop lying!”

“He was being truthful, but he was doing it in a way that scared everybody,” Grisham said. As a result, there was “no trouble convicting him.”

Appeals were fruitless. It was only after Williamson had spent 12 years on death row in Oklahoma, a place Grisham called “as bad as it gets” with a near tremble in his voice, that a team of talented lawyers took on Williamson’s case. With five days until his scheduled execution, September, 24, 1994, the judge issued a stay that made it possible for Williamson to be exonerated and take his life back.

Grisham spoke briefly of his meeting with the judge while he was conducting research for the book. “He’s a real hero,” the author said.

Grisham also reflected on comments Annette, Williamson’s sister, had made. Before Williamson’s new lawyers officially appealed the case, he was told he had 30 days to live. At the same time, Annette received a notice informing her that she could witness the execution.

“It’s morbid,” Grisham said. “They try to make [the execution process] as painful as possible.”

With the help of his new legal team, however, Williamson’s situation improved. He was moved to the treatment area for mental patients, where physicians finally concluded that he was completely unstable. In 1998, he underwent DNA testing that proved his innocence beyond a doubt. And on April 15, 1999, he was completely cleared of all guilt. Grisham noted this was “one of the first big DNA exonerations.”

Media attention followed suit, leading up to Williamson’s appearance on “Good Morning America” with Diane Sawyer. On that same all-expenses-paid trip to New York, Williamson made a long-awaited trip to Yankee Stadium, a moment captured by Grisham in an emotional passage he read to the audience.

When asked about his own views of the death penalty debate, Grisham explained that he does not support the death penalty in the United States because of the incredibly flawed way in which it is implemented.

His view on the issue was intensified by the chilling discoveries he made as a result of writing The Innocent Man.

“One thing this book taught me is that there are a lot of innocent people in prison,” he said. “I would hope that young lawyers want to help them.”

Grisham’s talk was sponsored by the Criminal Law Colloquium, the Virginia Innocence Project, and the Student Legal Forum.