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Grisham skillfully lays down law in true story of injustice

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town
By John Grisham
Doubleday, 368 pp., $28.95

In his first foray into nonfiction, novelist John Grisham (``The Firm," ``The Broker") has crafted a legal thriller every bit as suspenseful and fast-paced as his best - selling fiction.

Grisham skillfully tells the tragic true story of Ron Williamson, who became a hero in Ada, Okla., when he was drafted by baseball's Oakland Athletics in 1971 as the 41st overall pick. Williamson dreamed of becoming the next Mickey Mantle, but in a pro career that spanned six years, he never advanced beyond the minor leagues. In his rookie season, Williamson batted a mediocre .265, then a dismal .147 the next season.

Although Williamson's baseball dreams came crashing down, he refused to acknowledge that. He drowned his disappointments in alcohol and began showing early signs of deteriorating mental health. After his beauty-queen wife divorced him, Williamson seemed to unravel. Over six months in 1978, he twice faced rape charges, but was found not guilty. A depressed, alcohol-soaked Williamson moved back to Ada, sleeping on his mother's couch. He became the town drifter, a has-been who haunted local watering holes telling tales of his thwarted baseball dreams. Then, on Dec. 8, 1982, young cocktail waitress Debbie Sue Carter was found raped and murdered in her Ada apartment.

Although Ada police had no evidence connecting Williamson to the Carter murder, and despite strong evidence exonerating him and pointing to another Ada man, they made Williamson their prime suspect, along with his drinking buddy Dennis Fritz.

The pressure on Ada police was turned up considerably after a second young woman was murdered. In an anxiety-filled atmosphere, Ada police used psychological coercion to force confessions from two young men, winning dubious convictions on this second murder. Then in 1986, they arrested Williamson and Fritz for the Carter murder.

Grisham describes the evidence presented at Williamson's 1987 murder trial as a combination of junk science and patently unreliable testimony from jailhouse snitches hoping to parley false testimony into plea bargains. A prosecution expert told the jury that Williamson's hair ``matched" hair found at the murder scene. Grisham shows exactly why this expert testimony was both highly unreliable and misleading. Evidence possessed by the prosecutors tending to show Williamson's innocence was never revealed to his lawyer, who was literally blind. Williamson's lawyer never even brought up his client's questionable mental competency. Most egregiously, the only witness who testified that Williamson had ever seen Carter was a felon who did so at the ``suggestion" of Ada police. This same witness would later be convicted of murdering Carter.

Williamson was convicted and sentenced to death. He'd spend the next dozen years on death row, seeking a new trial while his mental condition worsened. A few days before his scheduled 1994 execution, a federal court granted a stay. After reviewing Williamson's trial record and finding it riddled with errors, the federal court ordered a new trial. As the process moved slowly forward, a bombshell struck in 1999. DNA testing was performed and the results proved that Williamson had absolutely no connection to Carter or the murder scene.

On April 15, 1999, Ron Williamson was set free. He later sued in federal court for wrongful conviction and received a large financial settlement. Yet Grisham's ending is decidedly not a happy one. Williamson continued to drink and confront serious mental health issues. In his final five years, Williamson moved 17 times. He died in 2004 from liver problems. ``An Innocent Man" is a page-turning and chilling descent into one innocent man's Kafkaesque nightmare of injustice and madness.

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