The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781598954395
Publisher: Findaway World Llc
Publication date: 10/30/2006
Edition description: Unabridged Library Edition
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

John Grisham lives with his family in Virginia and Mississippi.  His previous novels are A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Chamber, The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury, The Partner, The Street Lawyer, and The Testament.


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

Read an Excerpt

FOR THE WEEKLY DOCKET the court jester wore his standard garb of well-used and deeply faded maroon pajamas and lavender terry-cloth shower shoes with no socks. He wasn't the only inmate who went about his daily business in his pajamas, but no one else dared wear lavender shoes. His name was T. Karl, and he'd once owned banks in Boston.

The pajamas and shoes weren't nearly as troubling as the wig. It parted at the middle and rolled in layers downward, over his ears, with tight curls coiling off into three directions, and fell heavily onto his shoulders. It was a bright gray, almost white, and fashioned after the Old English magistrate's wigs from centuries earlier. A friend on the outside had found it at a secondhand costume store in Manhattan, in the Village.

T. Karl wore it to court with great pride, and, odd as it was, it had, with time, become part of the show. The other inmates kept their distance from T. Karl anyway, wig or not.

He stood behind his flimsy folding table in the prison cafeteria, tapped a plastic mallet that served as a gavel, cleared his squeaky throat, and announced with great dignity: "Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye. The Inferior Federal Court of North Florida is now in session. Please rise."

No one moved, or at least no one made an effort to stand. Thirty inmates lounged in various stages of repose in plastic cafeteria chairs, some looking at the court jester, some chatting away as if he didn't exist.

T. Karl continued: "Let all ye who search for justice draw nigh and get screwed."

No laughs. It had been funny months earlier when T. Karl first tried it. Now it was just another part of the show. He sat down carefully, making surethe rows of curls bouncing upon his shoulders were given ample chance to be seen, then he opened a thick red leather book which served as the official record for the court. He took his work very seriously.

Three men entered the room from the kitchen. Two of them wore shoes. One was eating a saltine. The one with no shoes was also bare-legged up to his knees, so that below his robe his spindly legs could be seen. They were smooth and hairless and very brown from the sun. A large tattoo had been applied to his left calf. He was from California.

All three wore old church robes from the same choir, pale green with gold trim. They came from the same store as T. Karl's wig, and had been presented by him as gifts at Christmas. That was how he kept his job as the court's official clerk.
There were a few hisses and jeers from the spectators as the judges ambled across the tile floor, in full regalia, their robes flowing. They took their places behind a long folding table, near T. Karl but not too near, and faced the weekly gathering. The short round one sat in the middle. Joe Roy Spicer was his name, and by default he acted as the Chief Justice of the tribunal. In his previous life, Judge Spicer had been a Justice of the Peace in Mississippi, duly elected by the people of his little county, and sent away when the feds caught him skimming bingo profits from a Shriners club.

"Please be seated," he said. Not a soul was standing.

The judges adjusted their folding chairs and shook their robes until they fell properly around them. The assistant warden stood to the side, ignored by the inmates. A guard in uniform was with him. The Brethren met once a week with the prison's approval. They heard cases, mediated disputes, settled little fights among the boys, and had generally proved to be a stabilizing factor amid the population.

Spicer looked at the docket, a neat hand-printed sheet of paper prepared by T. Karl, and said, "Court shall come to order."

To his right was the Californian, the Honorable Finn Yarber, age sixty, in for two years now with five to go for income tax evasion. A vendetta, he still maintained to anyone who would listen. A crusade by a Republican governor who'd managed to rally the voters in a recall drive to remove Chief Justice Yarber from the California Supreme Court. The rallying point had been Yarber's opposition to the death penalty, and his high-handedness in delaying every execution. Folks wanted blood, Yarber prevented it, the Republicans whipped up a frenzy, and the recall was a smashing success. They pitched him onto the street, where he floundered for a while until the IRS began asking questions. Educated at Stanford, indicted in Sacramento, sentenced in San Francisco, and now serving his time at a federal prison in Florida.

In for two years and Finn was still struggling with the bitterness. He still believed in his own innocence, still dreamed of conquering his enemies. But the dreams were fading. He spent a lot of time on the jogging track, alone, baking in the sun and dreaming of another life.

From the Paperback edition.

Reading Group Guide

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, he’s 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 Williamson’s story, furthering the conversation begun by John Grisham. We hope it will enhance your experience of this chilling walk with the accused.

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 Ada’s landscape–a vibrant small town dotted with relics of a long-gone oil boom–and the region’s 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 Fritz’s knowledge of the drug scandal affect the manhunt? Was injustice in Ada simply due to arrogance?

4. How was Dennis different from Ron? Why didn’t 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 Debbie’s 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 Ron’s high-rolling days in Tulsa spurred by a culture of experimentation and excess?

9. How did the descriptions of Oklahoma’s 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 author’s note, Grisham says that he discovered the Ada saga while reading Ron’s 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 Ron’s and Dennis’s exoneration. How did you balance your reaction to the triumph of Ron’s 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 Ron’s 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 don’t see?

14. Grisham is an avid baseball fan. How did his descriptions of Ron playing baseball serve as a metaphor for Ron’s rise and fall, and his release?

15. To what extent do you believe mental health should be a factor in determining someone’s competence to stand trial, or in determining guilt or innocence?

16. In his author’s 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 America’s judicial system?

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The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 541 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Angela2932ND More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read from the first word to the last word.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the book. This could happen in any town. I would like to see it made into a movie
me_plus_n More than 1 year ago
such an interesting book!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
RogRH More than 1 year ago
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.
MichaelTheAuthorMG More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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?'
katknit More than 1 year ago
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.
Bookworm1951 More than 1 year ago
A departure from the usual John Grisham books. This non-fiction story tells a frightening tale about our justice system. I gave it 4 stars rather than 5 because so many people involved that it got a bit confusing at times. Makes you stop and think about how many falsely accused people are behind bars and how many true criminals are still out there - free.
Sonia MacKenzie More than 1 year ago
Completely captivating. Great price for Grisham
Jambosrule More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
theycallmenicki More than 1 year ago
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!
Krystyna Kraeger More than 1 year ago
I loved this book, couldn't put it down. It was so different from what he normally writes, kinda refreshing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous 8 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I made it 1/3 way through and just had to stop. It takes place in my time frame - I graduated high school 1971. But could not relate, do not understand not being able to get a grip on your life better than 4 young men were able to do. So much emphasis on baseball sport and what could happen but rarely does I just quickly lost interest in the story. I had to quit, but then read author"s ending notes on writing this story. These few pages were enough to tell the appaling story of murder, suspected murder, ignorance, corrupt law enforcement, inept court proceedings, and how taxpayers $$ are so poorly managed and no one appears to be held accountable. Who is accountable - we all are as eligable voting citizens are. Shame on all of us for not demanding more from our country and ourselves. There is an important story to tell here just wasn't done well in my opinon. And I know this author is better than where I became bored and said to myself , I've had enough. Sorry - I do appreciate how much research, heart & soul went into writing the tale. JDL 4/28/19
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
a reminder to always be vigilant concerning our justice system and media.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
tcarter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Much better than recent novels. Forensic dissection of murder investigations and convictions of four innocent men in small town Oklahoma. The level of blinkeredness, malfeasance and downright deliberate injustice is awe inspiring.