Summary and book reviews of The Innocent Man by John Grisham

The Innocent Man

Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

by John Grisham

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

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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Chapter 1

The rolling hills of southeast Oklahoma stretch from Norman across to Arkansas and show little evidence of the vast deposits of crude oil that were once beneath them. Some old rigs dot the countryside; the active ones churn on, pumping out a few gallons with each slow turn and prompting a passerby to ask if the effort is really worth it. Many have simply given up, and sit motionless amid the fields as corroding reminders of the glory days of gushers and wildcatters and instant fortunes.

There are rigs scattered through the farmland around Ada, an old oil town of sixteen thousand with a college and a county courthouse. The rigs are idle, though–the oil is gone. Money is now made in Ada by the hour in factories and feed mills and on pecan farms.

Downtown Ada is a busy place. There are no empty or boarded-up buildings on Main Street. The merchants survive, though much of their business has moved to the edge of town. The cafés are crowded at lunch.

The Pontotoc County ...

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About this Reader's 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 ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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 .... 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.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (570 words).

Media Reviews

New York Times - Edward Lewine

[A]fter reading The Innocent Man, you do wish Grisham had used some of his novelist’s technique to marshal the facts at his disposal. Instead, he never gets the plot up to a decent boil.

The Wall Street Journal - Joshua Marquis

The one-sidedness of The Innocent Man is a shame, for two reasons. First, because it feeds the popular perception -- nurtured by Hollywood and the news media -- that death rows are teeming with wrongfully convicted men who just await DNA testing to set them free. Second, by skewing his tale, Mr. Grisham missed an opportunity to tell a well-rounded and perhaps more interesting story than the one he delivers.

The New York Times - Janet Maslin

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.

The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley

The Innocent Man is a useful companion to Ultimate Punishment (2003), the argument against the death penalty by that other lawyer who writes skillful fiction, Scott Turow. Like Turow, Grisham realizes that the most powerful argument against the death penalty is that it kills the innocent as well as the guilty, a case that he makes simply by telling Williamson and Fritz's story. His prose here isn't as good as it is in his novels…but his reasoning is sound and his passion is contagious.

The New York Times - Janet Maslin

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.

The Onion - Noel Murray

Frankly, Grisham overdoes it a little. He states and re-states each malfeasance, and writes in exhausting detail about Williamson's untreated mental illness. But when Grisham gets into what happened to Williamson and company during their prison stay, The Innocent Man finds its purpose.

Boston Globe - Chuck Leddy

In his first foray into nonfiction, novelist John Grisham has crafted a legal thriller every bit as suspenseful and fast-paced as his best - selling fiction.

Time Magazine

A gritty, harrowing true-crime story.

New York Daily News

Grisham is at his succinct, and often sardonic, best.

Entertainment Weekly

Grisham has written both an American tragedy and his strongest legal thriller yet, all the more gripping because it happens to be true.

Daily Telegraph - Raymond Seitz

Grisham lets this gripping story tell itself. Without directly attacking capital punishment, he demonstrates the gross fallibilities of the system, exposing here not merely a 'miscarriage of justice' but its utter collapse.

Sydney Morning Herald - Bruce Elder

Contrary to the opinion of many critics, Grisham is a great storyteller and a fine, no-nonsense writer. He has a well-honed attention to detail. He doesn't degenerate into cliches and he has a natural sense of dramatic structure that ensures the book has a compelling forward momentum.

Reader Reviews

Concerned Citizen

Eye Opener
First, I would like to say that after reading all of the other comments made here, it appears that everyone seemed to miss the the point that this was not a book of fiction a la Mr. Grishman's other "tales". This is a true story of ...   Read More

Bill

Better than fiction
I just finished "The Innocent Man" yesterday. I was completely absorbed by the story from beginning to end. I've only read a few Grisham books and this was my favorite. I tend to prefer modern stories when they are true, but I'm a big fan of the "...   Read More

Paulette

First Rate
Another well-written book from Grisham. I loved the way Grisham put together voluminous facts and made it into one coherent and moving tale. I was appalled by the fact that "competent" people can overlook so many important things that even I, ...   Read More

SharonA

An Innocent Man
Dear Mr. Grisham, I patiently wait for your books to come out on paperback before I buy and then devour! I love them all except for this one. I didn't realize it was your first non-fiction. It was way too long. I ended up skimming through when I ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The sad tale of Ron Williamson & Dennis Fritz

Ada, Oklahoma local boy Ron Williamson achieved hero status when drafted by baseball's Oakland Athletics in 1971, but within a couple of seasons his baseball dreams had been dashed and he took to drowning his sorrows in alcohol.  In 1978, having twice been charged with rape and found not guilty, and having been left by his wife and having been in and out of mental institutions, he returned to Ada to live with his mother, where he became known around town as a drifter.  One of his few friends was Dennis Fritz, a high school science teacher, who was raising his 8-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, whose mother had been murdered by a deranged neighbor six years earlier...

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