10 min read ⌚
Murder and Injustice in a Small Town
The small town is that of Ada, Oklahoma.
The murder: that of Debra Sue Carter.
The injustice: of epic proportions.
Ladies and gentlemen, John Grisham’s only non-fiction book to date:
Who Should Read “The Innocent Man”? And Why?
There’s a reason why, when someone mentions the phrase “legal thriller,” the first two words that come into the mind of many are: John Grisham.
Translated into more than 50 languages, his books (and there are about 40 of them) have sold about 300 million copies worldwide! Divide that, and you get an average of about 7 million copies per book – a staggering number considering Grisham’s output!
But, then again, not that surprising: it’s Grisham, so the readers know what to expect: murders and all sorts of crimes, convoluted plots, lawyers, courtroom dramas.
The Innocent Man – though a non-fiction book – is not an exception; in fact, it’s even stranger than fiction, telling (mainly) the story of Ron Williamson, a former minor league baseball player, wrongly convicted for murder.
In the “Author’s Note,” Grisham himself notes that “not in [his] most creative moment could [he] conjure up a story as rich and as layered as Ron’s.”
And an Entertainment Weekly review goes a step further, claiming that, with Innocent Man, Grisham “has written both an American tragedy and his strongest legal thriller yet, all the more gripping because it happens to be true.”
In other words, if you are a John Grisham fan, The Innocent Man is probably even more than what you would expect from a Grisham novel; if you are not – this is the book to become one.
There are little things as universally appealing as true crime stories involving innocent people; which is why Netflix decided to adapt the book in a six-part documentary series, the trailer for which you can find below.
If you don’t want any more spoilers – stop reading here.
About John Grisham
John Grisham is an American novelist, attorney, and politician, best known as the author of a series of wildly successful legal thrillers.
After graduating from Mississippi State University and receiving a law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1981, Grisham went on to practice criminal law for a decade.
In 1989, he published his first novel, A Time to Kill, in a modest 5,000 print run; the book was neither a critical nor a popular success. However, that all changed when two years later Grisham’s second novel, The Firm, gained him wide popularity.
Both books were later turned into movies: The Firm in 1993, with Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman in the main roles, and A Time to Kill in 1996, starring Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson.
All of Grisham’s four next novels were both bestsellers and adapted into blockbuster movies almost as soon as released:
• The Pelican Brief (starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington);
• The Client (starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones);
• The Chamber (starring Gene Hackman and Chris O’Donnell); and
• The Rainmaker (directed by Francis Ford Coppola and featuring an All-Star cast headed by Matt Damon and Danny DeVito);
Five more of Grisham’s remaining thirty or so novels have been turned into movies as well (The Gingerbread Man, A Painted House, Runaway Jury, Mickey, and Christmas with the Kranks), and three others (The Associate, The Testament, and Calico Joe) should be in the next two or three years.
John Grisham is one of only three authors to sell two million copies on first printing (Tom Clancy and J. K. Rowling are the other two).
Find out more at http://www.jgrisham.com/.
“The Innocent Man PDF Summary”
Though The Innocent Man is often described as the story of the murder of Debra Sue Carter and the wrongful conviction of Ron Williamson, there’s a lot more to John Grisham’s book – like the ones who have already binge-watched Netflix’s docuseries already know.
True, Ron Williamson’s story is the main narrative, but there are a few subplots as well: the purported murder of Denice Haraway especially, as well as the murder of Kathy Wilholt and the wrongful conviction of his husband, Greg.
The book itself is divided into 17 chapters and jumps between stories, but, for our summary, we decided to separate the main two cases in two sections and recap each of them in few short chapters.
Hopefully, this should help you follow the main arcs better.
The Murder of Debra Sue Carter
Ronald Keith Williamson was a successful school and college baseball player, and when he left high school, he seemed to have the world at his feet.
However, he soon learned that “no star fades faster than that of a high school athlete.”
First, a shoulder injury hindered his chances to become something in the world of minor league baseball and, then, he slowly began to show signs of mental illness, drifting into a life of alcoholism, petty crimes, and misdemeanor.
Debra Sue Carter
On December 8, 1982, the body of Debra Sue Carter, a 21-year-old cocktail waitress, was found in the bedroom of her garage apartment in Ada. Police investigation showed that she had been beaten and raped before being suffocated.
Williamson – and his “drinking buddy” Dennis Fritz – were regular guests at Coachlight, the restaurant where Debra worked, and, allegedly, the victim had complained about them to a friend sometime before being murdered.
To make matters worse, a guy named Glen Gore – who had been seen chatting with Ada on the night before the murder – claimed in an interview with the police that he had last seen Debbie with none other than Ron Williamson.
Since he was “a somewhat notorious carouser with a loud mouth,” the police had no problems believing Glen that Williamson might have been pestering Debbie.
The investigation made a few false starts, but, then, suddenly, there was a breakthrough.
You see, soon after the murder, Williamson was imprisoned for kiting cheques. An inmate of his, Terri Holland – “a career criminal” – told the police that she had heard Ron admitting to the crime while in prison.
Another informant came forward and stated the same in relation to Dennis Fritz, just one day after the prosecution would have been legally bound to drop the charges against him.
Williamson made matters even worse for him when he recounted to the police a dream of his, in which he stabbed and strangled the victim.
Because this was treated as a confession.
Coupled with some shoddy forensic work, this led to Williamson being sent to death row, and Fritz sentenced to life in prison.
The Death Sentence and the Release
Williamson’s death sentence was supposed to be carried out on September 24, 1994 – and six days before that Williamson could be heard shouting “I’m innocent! I’m innocent! I’m innocent!” from his cell.
Fortunately, the next day, a group of appellate lawyers filed a habeas corpus petition which saved Williamson’s life.
The document which turned things around began thus:
This case is a bizarre one about a dream that turned into a nightmare for Ronald Keith Williamson. His arrest came nearly 5 years after the crime — after Mr. Williamson’s alibi witness was dead — and was based almost entirely on the ‘confession,’ related as a dream, of a seriously mentally ill man, Ron Williamson.
Williamson was eleven years on death row when DNA evidence exonerated him and Fritz on April 15, 1999, making Ron the 78th inmate released from death row since 1973.
Four years after the release of Williamson and Fritz, on June 24, 2003, the real murderer was found.
Surprise, surprise: it was Glen Gore, the guy who, in retrospect, had been an obvious suspect from the start.
He was sentenced a few years later to life in prison without parole – but by that time, Ron Williamson was already dead.
Diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, Williamson died in a Broken Arrow, Oklahoma nursing home on December 4, 2004, a year after he won a settlement for wrongful conviction from the City of Ada, and two years before Grisham published his book and Glen Gore was sentenced.
The Murder of Denice Haraway
Donna Denice Haraway
Two years after the murder of Debbie Carter, another young girl in her 20s with a night job, disappeared in the small town of Ada: Donna Denice Haraway.
Married about a year before her disappearance, Haraway was a 24-year-old student at East Central working at a convenience store.
Two young men were seen in the vicinity of the store on the night of her disappearance.
Naturally, they were the prime suspects.
Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot
The police received many calls from concerned citizens; no less than 25 names were given by these callers as suspects.
Two names immediately stood out by the sheer number of mentions: Billy Charley and Tommy Ward.
Billy Charley had an alibi: he had been with his parents all through the night. Tommy Ward’s alibi was rather different: he said that he had been fishing and partying with a friend, Karl Fontenot; apparently, that didn’t happen.
It didn’t help that Tommy was a high-school dropout arrested several times for misdemeanors such as public drunkenness or petty theft.
The police were rather sure that they had their man; or, better yet: their men.
The Dream Confessions and Terri Holland
When Tommy Ward was called yet again for an interview, he was asked several times to use his imagination to explain what could have happened in the case of Denice Haraway’s disappearance.
And one day, after a grueling eight-hour session, Ward confessed to the crime; shortly after Fontenot did as well.
They were tried for first-degree murder even though they could not tell where the body of Haraway was and even though they had both recanted their confessions.
And it gets even weirder.
The Body of Denice Haraway
You see – and, in a moment, you’ll realize why this is the strangest part – the reason why Tommy and Karl couldn’t provide the body of Denice was simple: they said that they had burned it.
It was a gruesome story, involving “stab wounds, the blood and guts, the brutal raping and knifing of such a pretty girl, then the horrible burning of her body.”
The only problem: it wasn’t true.
How do we know that?
Well, on January 21, 1986, in the woods some twenty miles from Ada, the body of Denice Haraway was discovered by a hunter.
The body was neither stabbed nor burned.
The cause of death?
A single gunshot wound through her head.
“The true cause of death should have convinced everyone involved that Ward and Fontenot had indeed dreamed up their ridiculous tales and had been coerced into confessing,” writes Grisham. “It did not.”
Even more: “the true cause of death should have prompted the authorities to admit they were wrong and begin searching for the real murderer. It did not.”
With no physical evidence, the taped confessions were beyond crucial, but they were filled with discrepancies and obvious lies. The prosecution was forced into the bizarre position of admitting Ward and Fontenot were lying while asking the jurors to believe them.
This one’s not even remotely a happy one.
Eventually, Ward and Fontenot were granted retrials, but they were, once again, found guilty.
And to this day they are on a death row, imprisoned for more than three decades.
Even though everybody knows that it’s very, very likely that they are serving time for a murder committed by someone else.
Key Lessons from “The Innocent Man”
1. Truth Is Sometimes Stranger Than Fiction
2. Your Dreams Can Get You a Death Sentence
3. This Will Happen Again
Truth Is Sometimes Stranger Than Fiction
“If I wrote The Innocent Man as a novel,” says John Grisham in an interview for Netflix’s docuseries based on his book, “folks probably wouldn’t believe it.”
And you know what – we wouldn’t.
Two mysterious murders occur in a town of 15.000 people in the space of two years; for each, two people are found guilty; the prosecutor is the same guy for both trials; the investigators – more or less, the same team.
And it doesn’t stop there: in both cases, dreams of the accused are treated as confessions; in both cases, the main witness is the same, a jailhouse informant; finally, in both cases, the men turn out to be innocent.
If it was a novel, the reviews would have probably been littered with words such as “improbable,” “implausible,” “unconvincing,” “unlikely,” and even “ridiculous.”
And yet – to quote Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia – it happened.
Your Dreams Can Get You a Death Sentence
Speaking of truth being stranger than fiction –
You’ve probably read/watched Philip K. Dick’s/Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report; if not, in it, people are arrested before even committing a crime based on the foreknowledge of three psychics called precogs.
In an even better example, in Ismail Kadare’s exceptional 1981 novel The Palace of Dreams, there’s a whole shady Ministry which analyzes dreams and suggests punishments for people based on dream symbolism.
Apparently, this can happen in real life as well: believe it or not, the dreams of both Williamson in relation to the murder of Debra Sue Carter and Ward and Fontenot’s in relation to the murder of Denice Haraway were treated as real confessions!
Even after the evidence demonstrated that they are (unsurprisingly!) incompatible with reality.
For all the weight Freud and Jung put on the significance of dreams, we kind of feel that this is a great example of why one should be with Sagan when it comes to their validity.
This Will Happen Again
The main takeaway from this book?
Dreams and tampering with evidence aside, innocent people will get convicted again and again – not only because our police and justice system is neither perfect nor colorblind, but also because human nature is imperfect as well.
And we need to both accept that and work against it as well.
As far as cases such as these are concerned, the Innocence Project is a great start.
Click here to find out more.
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“The Innocent Man Quotes”God help us, if ever in this great country we turn our heads while people who have not had fair trials are executed. (Via Judge Frank Howell Seay) Click To Tweet No star fades faster than that of a high school athlete. Click To Tweet There’s an old adage in bad trial lawyering that when you don’t have the facts, do a lot of yelling. Click To Tweet A preconceived conclusion can exist and slant the findings toward that suspect. Click To Tweet Justice cannot be equal where, simply as a result of his poverty, a defendant is denied the opportunity to participate meaningfully in a judicial proceeding in which his liberty is at stake. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
The Innocent Man is “a gritty, harrowing, true-crime story” that should serve to remind everybody that, as opposed to novels, in reality, justice often goes astray.
In real life, policemen and detectives are not superheroes, but ordinary people who can not only make mistakes but who can also, sometimes, even purposefully ignore the facts so as to add another solved crime to their résumés.The Innocent Man is a great reminder that this can sometimes lead to the death of an innocent man; and, as we learned from John Donne and Hemingway, the death of every innocent man on this planet is your responsibility.