Novelist John Grisham visited the Georgetown University Law Center on February 23, 2009 to speak in Hart Auditorium about his book, “The Innocent Man”.
The event was hosted by the Georgetown Law Innocent Program during Criminal Justice Reform Month, which is dedicated to enlightening students about the criminal justice system and its issues.
“The Innocent Man” focuses on the real-life experience of Ronald Williamson, who was sentenced to death row for the rape and murder of a young cocktail waitress. Williamson was exonerated five days before his execution, after which he was committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Grisham originally discovered Williamson’s story when he stumbled upon his picture and obituary on Dec. 4, 2004.
“I spend a lot of time trying to write opening paragraphs that will hook the reader into that story,” Grisham said. “I was hooked by the first paragraph of that obituary.”
After reading Williamson’s obituary, Grisham said that he decided, with his editor’s help, to speak to Williamson’s sisters.
Grisham’s initial interest in Williamson’s story stems from the two types of novels he prefers to write, he said.
“I try to write two types of books … one is pure entertainment … the other books involve an issue. … I like to take an issue, a setting, and weave a story around it, always in the context of the law, since I’m still a lawyer and that’s how I think,” Grisham said. “Those are the better books, where I can take an issue and flesh it out for my readers.”
In his speech, Grisham pointed out one main problem in Williamson’s conviction and trial, which was that the police failed to investigate the last person who had been with the victim, who turned out to be her murderer.
Grisham said that he believes cases like Williamson’s show the justice system’s glitches.
“I’m fascinated about this aspect of our system, that it’s so horribly broken,” Grisham said. He added that conservative estimates report that between 2 to 5 percent of prisoners are actually innocent.
Grisham attributed this fascination with the justice system to his previous career in law. He decided to attend college to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War. As an undergraduate, he chose to get a degree in accounting and then attend law school, where he studied tax law.
Grisham’s first book, “A Time To Kill” was inspired, however, by a rape trial he attended after losing interest in tax law and attending trials so that he could watch trial lawyers in action.
Grisham said that his early writing days were spent in his tax law office.
“I got into this ridiculous routine of going to the office at 5 o’clock in the morning and writing for a couple of hours,” Grisham said.
Since then, Grisham has written 22 novels, nine of which have been adapted into films, he said.
For Grisham, however, his real life experiences in law never paralleled the faulty conviction that Williamson suffered.
“I never thought about a wrongful conviction. … I never saw a cop hide evidence. … I never saw a prosecutor fail to give evidence he was supposed to give [and] I practiced law for 10 years,” he said.
He concluded his speech by commenting on his future as a writer, now that he no longer spends his early morning hours writing in the law office.
“Escapism — it’s a recurring theme. I mean, I wasn’t real happy as a lawyer. … Do I miss the law practice? No, sir,” Grisham said. “I know what I do best — stay at home on the farm and write the next book.”