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The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town
by John Grisham

Published: 2012-03-27
Mass Market Paperback : 448 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 2 of 2 members


In the town of Ada, Oklahoma, Ron Williamson was going to be the next Mickey Mantle. But on his way to the Big Leagues, Ron stumbled, his dreams broken by drinking, drugs, and women. Then, on a winter night in 1982, not far from Ron’s home, a young cocktail ...

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In the town of Ada, Oklahoma, Ron Williamson was going to be the next Mickey Mantle. But on his way to the Big Leagues, Ron stumbled, his dreams broken by drinking, drugs, and women. Then, on a winter night in 1982, not far from Ron’s home, a young cocktail waitress named Debra Sue Carter was savagely murdered. The investigation led nowhere. Until, on the flimsiest evidence, it led to Ron Williamson. The washed-up small-town hero was charged, tried, and sentenced to death—in a trial littered with lying witnesses and tainted evidence that would shatter a man’s already broken life, and let a true killer go free.

Impeccably researched, grippingly told, filled with eleventh-hour drama, John Grisham’s first work of nonfiction reads like a page-turning legal thriller. It is a book that will terrify anyone who believes in the presumption of innocence—a book no American can afford to miss.

Editorial Review

John Grisham tackles nonfiction for the first time with The Innocent Man, a true tale about murder and injustice in a small town (that reads like one of his own bestselling novels). The Innocent Man chronicles the story of Ron Williamson, how he was arrested and charged with a crime he did not commit, how his case was (mis)handled and how an innocent man was sent to death row. Grisham's first work of nonfiction is shocking, disturbing, and enthralling--a must read for fiction and nonfiction fans. We had the opportunity to talk with John Grisham about the case and the book, read his responses below. --Daphne Durham
20 Second Interview: A Few Words with John Grisham

Q: After almost two decades of writing fiction, what compelled you to write non-fiction, particularly investigative journalism?
A: I was never tempted to write non-fiction, primarily because it's too much work. However, obviously, I love a good legal thriller, and the story of Ron Williamson has all the elements of a great suspenseful story.

Q: Why this case?
A: Ron Williamson and I are about the same age and we both grew up in small towns in the south. We both dreamed of being major league baseball players. Ron had the talent, I did not. When he left a small town in 1971 to pursue his dreams of major league glory, many thought he would be the next Mickey Mantle, the next great one from the state of Oklahoma. The story of Ron ending up on Death Row and almost being executed for a murder he did not commit was simply too good to pass up.

Q: How did you go about your research?
A: I started with his family. Ron is survived by two sisters who took care of him for most of his life. They gave me complete access to the family records, photographs, Ron's mental health records, and so on. There was also a truckload of trial transcripts, depositions, appeals, etc., that took about 18 months to organize and review. Many of the characters in the story are still alive and I traveled to Oklahoma countless times to interview them.

Q: Did your training as a lawyer help you?
A: Very much so. It enabled me to understand the legal issues involved in Ron's trial and his appeals. It also allowed me, as it always does, to be able to speak the language with lawyers and judges.

Q: Throughout your book you mention, The Dreams of Ada: A True Story of Murder, Obsession, and a Small Town. How did you come across that book, and how did it impact your writing The Innocent Man?
A: Several of the people in Oklahoma I met mentioned The Dreams of Ada to me, and I read it early on in the process. It is an astounding book, a great example of true crime writing, and I relied upon it heavily during my research. Robert Mayer, the author, was completely cooperative, and kept meticulous notes from his research 20 years earlier. Many of the same characters are involved in his story and mine.

Q: You take on some pretty controversial and heated topics in your book--the death penalty, prisonerâ??s rights, DNA analysis, police conduct, and more--were any of your own beliefs challenged by this story and its outcome?
A: None were challenged, but my eyes were open to the world of wrongful convictions. Even as a former criminal defense attorney, I had never spent much time worrying about wrongful convictions. But, unfortunately, they happen all the time in this country, and with increasing frequency.

Q: So many of the key players in this case are either still in office or practicing attorneys. Many family members and friends still live in the same small town. How do you think The Innocent Man will impact this community and other small rural towns as they struggle with the realities of the justice system?
A: Exonerations seem to be happening weekly. And with each one of them, the question is asked--how can an innocent man be convicted and kept in prison for 20 years? My book is the story of only one man, but it is a good example of how things can go terribly wrong with our judicial system. I have no idea how the book will be received in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma, or any other town.

Q: What do you hope your readers will take away from The Innocent Man?
A: A better understanding of how innocent people can be convicted, and a greater concern for the need to reimburse and rehabilitate innocent men after they have been released.


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Discussion Questions

Suggested by Members

What was the most shocking discovery you made in the book about our judicial system?
How did you feel about Ron Williamson and his family once the tale was over?
Who in the book left the worst taste in your mouth, when you thought about them?
by Tesse (see profile) 05/17/11

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Food to bring related to book:
by Tesse (see profile) 05/17/11
BBQ...it was Ron's favorite dish.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Heart Rending"by Tesse L. (see profile) 05/17/11

I normally like Grisham’s works but do not normally read his genre. And I guess I have never read a nonfiction book on a crime before either, so I was unprepared for the way the story was ... (read more)

  "Amazing story told less so"by Jeff F. (see profile) 01/13/11

I was fascinated by the story but constantly disappointed by Grisham's telling of it. I'll give him credit for taking a complicated tale with more characters than War and Peace to keep track... (read more)

  "The Innocent Man"by Corrine S. (see profile) 05/21/09

Eye-opening account of how far from just our justice system can be.

  "The Innocent Man"by Cynthia Y. (see profile) 05/21/09

  "Obvious First Book"by Melissa H. (see profile) 09/08/08

While this book sparked many conversations about the death penalty, the criminal justice system and prisoners with mental health issues, I felt the writing did not meet up to my expectations of a John... (read more)

  "Very hard to follow."by Angela O. (see profile) 05/23/08

This book was horrible. It was soooo hard to follow. There were so many names that it was hard to keep up with who was who. It was too detailed and confusing. I would not recommend it at all.

  "nonfiction is not Grisham's forte"by Julie R. (see profile) 05/23/08

It was like reading an episode of CSI. Not what I expected at all. Not an easy read at all.

  "Non fiction is not for John Grisham"by Jean Ann L. (see profile) 05/23/08

This was a huge disappointment. I normally enjoy John Grisham's books. I don't know if it was the actual story or just that writing non fiction is not his calling.

  "A book not for the faint hearted"by Ruth A. (see profile) 02/29/08

Our bookclub enjoyed this book grudgingly. One member said she didn't like it but couldn't put it down. Another said it made her so mad she wanted to throw the book across the room. So this book stirs... (read more)

  "highly emotional book"by Sheila R. (see profile) 02/15/08

I have never read a book of this nature. I am not a fan of murder and suspense---but I do love mystery. I really enjoyed this book because it is a true story. I am not an attorney or detective but with... (read more)

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