BookBrowse Reviews The Innocent Man by John Grisham

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The Innocent Man

Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

by John Grisham

The Innocent Man by John Grisham X
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2006, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2007, 448 pages

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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

Since A Time to Kill published in 1989 John Grisham has become virtually synonymous with the term "legal thriller", a genre that he's already broken out of a few times, such as his two 2001 novels, A Painted House and Skipping Christmas, but with The Innocent Man he's crossed the line not just from one fiction genre to another but from fiction into nonfiction.  Stylistically, it's often difficult to tell the difference between his first nonfiction work and his novels, which is both the strength and weakness of The Innocent Man.

Judged against Grisham's fictional works, The Innocent Man compares well, his prose style is tight and fast-paced, the extremely large cast of characters are sketched succinctly and courtroom legalities are explained in a style simple enough for the layman to follow, and we're left in little doubt about who are the good guys and who are the bad. 

The story of Ron Williamson's life is truly a tragic one (see sidebar) and the wrongful arrest and sentencing of both Williamson and the man who befriended him, science teacher Dennis Fritz, was an egregious miscarriage of justice by any measure.  However, Grisham's black and white approach to the real world which, unlike fiction, is always drawn in shades of gray, is the weakness of The Innocent Man when judged as a work of nonfiction. Grisham is right to vent against a justice system gone wrong and against the wretched Oklahoma prisons (which apparently have even been condemned by Amnesty International), but other sources such as District Attorney Bill Peterson's website, suggest that, as always, there are two sides to every story and Grisham may have been a little over enthusiastic in expressing just one of them.  Also, his focus on Ron Williamson's death row sentence verses Dennis Fritz's life imprisonment gives the reader the impression that The Innocent Man is more a polemic against the death sentence itself rather than the wrongful conviction of not one but two men.  

Also, as a work of nonfiction, the reader might anticipate more in the way of analysis and the big picture - if wrongful convictions in the United States happen (which, with about 2 million people incarcerated at any one time, they inevitably must)  why is this so, how widespread is the problem and what should we do about it?  Not to mention, why does the USA have such a high percentage of its population in prison in the first place? 

Did you know?

According to the World Prison Population List (sixth edition, 2005), formerly produced by the UK Home Office, and now by Kings College London:

  • Over 9 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world.  Almost a quarter of these are in the USA (2.09 million).  By comparison, China has just 1.55 million in prison and Russia 0.76 million. 
  • The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world, 714 per 100,000 of the national population; followed by Belarus, Bermuda and Russia (all 532/100,000).
  • Almost 3 out of every 5 countries (58%) have incarceration rates below 150 per 100,000.


Interesting Links

  • The Innocence Project 200 website (undated), with profiles of the first 200 innocent men and women to be released from USA prisons on the basis of DNA evidence.
  • An April 2006 BBC article on the USA's prison system, including a chart showing the worldwide prison population as a percentage of the country's population. 

This review is from the November 27, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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