Whew! It's not often I read a book straight through in two days. But I could not put down "The Innocent Man" by John Grisham, his first non-fiction book. It focuses primarily on Ron Williamson, a mentally ill man who was railroaded onto Death Row for a crime with which he had no involvement. Ron was convicted, along with his friend Dennis Fritz, on extremely shoddy police work, a corrupt prosecutor, testimony from jailhouse snitches, and a less than adequate defense attorney. Dennis received life in prison.
The book inspired a wide variety of feelings in me: disbelief, disgust, fear, anger, dismay, distrust, and a deep sadness, for starters. I have long been interested in The Innocence Project, a national organization whose sole purpose is to use DNA analysis to exonerate innocent men and women who are serving time for crimes they did not commit. Some of these people have been sentenced to life in prison; others are on Death Row, as Ron Williamson was, and as Tommy Ward and Kurt Fontenot continue to be.
Tommy and Kurt have been in prison for 22 years. They were railroaded by the same prosecutor who won convictions for Dennis and Ron, with the same unethical practices and complete absence of evidence. They are completely innocent of the crime for which they have been convicted. Gresham writes about them in his book, as well.
While I am a proponent of just sentences for heinous crimes, I cannot support the conviction of innocents just to solve a crime. This is what happens in many of these cases. It can be difficult to feel compassion for people in this position once one starts to read about them. Perhaps they were already criminals, petty or otherwise. Perhaps they have drug and/or alcohol problems. Perhaps they're not people who inspire sympathy from others. Nevertheless, for our judicial system to maintain integrity and the trust of the public, we must believe that our system works. Therefore we must monitor our justice system ourselves, and fix corruption when it is exposed. It can never be just to convict any innocent person of any crime, even if they are unsavory people.
If this is a topic that you would like to learn more about, I suggest Gresham's book, as well as Dennis Fritz's personal account of his 12 years in prison and the long, bleak road he took to regain his freedom. His book is titled "Journey Toward Justice". You may also want to check out www.innocenceproject.org for information on this ground-breaking organization.
As American citizens, we must police our justice system by ensuring that innocent people are not convicted of crimes they did not commit. This injustice can happen to anyone, as you will read in the pages of Grisham's and Fritz's books. It's emotional reading, but we must not ignore the very real threats to our liberty and those of our fellow Americans.