John Grisham, who sits on the board of the Innocence Project of New York, will be in Atlanta on April 7 to raise funds for the Georgia Innocence Project and speak about “The Innocent Man,” and his new legal thriller, “The Associate.” The event will take place at 6:30 p.m. at the Pace Academy Fine Arts Center.
The author’s Atlanta appearance coincides with the 10th anniversary of the release of Williamson and Fritz on April 15, 1999, which was secured with the help of the Innocence Project in New York. Before Williamson and Fritz were set free, Williamson came within days of execution in 1994 for the 1982 rape and murder of an Ada, Okla., cocktail waitress. Mentally ill, broken from years of often brutal incarceration, Williamson died at the age of 51 on Dec. 4, 2004. Fritz survived and, after his release from prison, eventually reclaimed a quiet, normal and prosperous life.
It was Williamson’s obituary in The New York Times that captured Grisham’s attention in 2004. Struck by the powerful details of Williamson’s long and ultimately tragic ordeal, Grisham said he immediately called Williamson’s family and struck a deal with them to give him exclusive access to the ballplayer’s story.
“I plunged into this story headfirst without the least bit of training or knowledge,” recalled Grisham, a graduate of the University of Mississippi School of Law who practiced law before becoming a novelist. “I’m not trained as a journalist. I had to feel my way through a new world of sources and secret sources and unbelievable sources.”
Grisham said he had to sort out dilemmas he had never faced, such as what he could legitimately print if he uncovered “a great story and a lousy source,” and whether he could rely on notes when he couldn’t secure permission to use a tape recorder.
“The biggest challenge for me looming over the entire process was the very real probability of being sued,” he said. “When I initially jumped into the story and met all the players … I knew that when the book was published there would be some folks who would be very unhappy with it. I just anticipated trouble from day one. That was good. It made me really, really be careful. I worked hard for accuracy, to verify sources” because “someone was always looking over my shoulder.”
“The Innocent Man” has been in publication for two years, and, in his new novel, Grisham has returned to the more familiar turf of malevolent big law firms and the young associates who work for them.