John Grisham’s first nonfiction book, The Innocent Man, is brilliant. His ability to write fast-moving plots makes it a thrilling read. Beyond that, Grisham’s book makes a strong case against the death penalty–as it is applied in the United States. The book not only gives you a few hours of suspense and intrigue, but it also forces you to reconsider your opinions on crime and punishment under our current justice system. In fairness I will point out that Bill Peterson, the District Attorney in the book, challenges its accuracy and its portrayal of his role in the case.
The Innocent Man tells the story of Ron Williamson, who was convicted of a rape and murder that he did not commit. The title gives that part away. What makes the book such a gripping read is that Grisham lays out the background and the step-by-step details of how such a thing could happen. It seems almost unbelievable that such a travesty could occur, but when you read about the confluence of several forces–bad police work, overzealous and dishonest prosecution, weak defense lawyering, and ineffective trial management by the judge–you get a clear picture of how people end up getting wrongly convicted. (Again, I will write in fairness that DA Peterson defends his work on the original case and claims that it was he who helped to correct the wrong that was done.)
After reading the book, I have changed my mind about the death penalty. I still think it is a logical and ethical punishment to mete out to a murderer, but I think that our system is too prone to misapply it and other punishments. For me to support it now, some changes would have to occur:
1. We must remove the incentive that police have to arrest and charge somebody with a crime at all costs. There is too much pressure on the police to catch somebody, anybody, when a violent crime has been committed. As a society we need to change our demand for an arrest and insist that nobody be arrested without very solid evidence. In addition, there must be consequences for police investigators who wrongly charge somebody, either through neglect or through purposely planting or exaggerating evidence.
2. We must also remove the incentive that district attorneys have to prosecute and get a conviction against somebody. As it is now, DA’s build their reputations and their careers upon the number of convictions they rack up. We as a society should insist that they care more about getting the right person–not just any person. There should also be harsh consequences for prosecuters who put innocent people behind bars–or get them nearly executed.
3. Somehow we have to make it possible for poor defendants to get good representation from their appointed attorneys. It is simply unjust that a wealthy person, such as O. J. Simpson, can hire a team of super lawyers to defend him, while a poor person, like Ron Williamson, is stuck with an apparently reluctant and ineffective lawyer. I’m not sure how we could make the system more equitable, but we should stop executing people until we do.