An obituary in The New York Times changed the way attorney-turned-best-selling author John Grisham looked at the law.
On Dec. 9, 2004, he was skimming the Times and came across the headline, “Ronald Williamson, Freed from Death Row, Dies at 51.” After reading the story, he knew it would be his next book and his first foray into nonfiction. It also was the beginning of his work with innocence projects attempting to correct flaws in America’s legal system.
“There are thousands of innocent people in prison in this country,” Grisham said on April 22 at University of Richmond’s T.C. Williams School of Law.
“I had never really thought about wrongful conviction. I didn’t really think about it until ‘The Innocent Man’ was researched and written,” said the author of “The Firm” and other legal thrillers.
Grisham spoke to dozens of students and faculty associated with UR’s newly established Institute for Actual Innocence. The program, which involves students, faculty and practicing lawyers, works to identify and exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals in Virginia. It is part of a national group of similar innocence projects.
Mary Kelly Tate, the institute’s director, said overturning convictions in Virginia can be difficult. “We have some of the most challenging procedural hurdles and underfunding,” she said. At her request, Grisham came to UR from his home in Charlottesville to speak to participants in the project.
“The Innocent Man,” published in 2006, examines Ron Williamson’s wrongful conviction stemming from a brutal murder in Oklahoma in 1982.
“Based on hair analysis, snitches and a couple of bogus confessions, Ron was given the death penalty,” said Grisham. Williamson stayed on death row for years until a team of appellate lawyers sought a writ of habeas corpus and he was granted a stay five days before he was to be executed.
DNA tests ultimately cleared Williamson and a co-defendant.
“Life after exoneration is not pleasant,” Grisham said. “He was set free without an apology. No one has the courage to say they were wrong. The state wants you to go away and not make any noise.”
Grisham cited a number or reasons for wrongful convictions, including sloppy police work, courthouse snitches, junk science, false confessions and bad lawyering. Of the 130 death-row cases that have been overturned in the U.S., he said, two-thirds of them involved willful, malicious misconduct by authorities.
“The challenge now is to convince a lot of comfortable white people that there are a lot of innocent people in prison.
“This system, if we think it’s so great — how can this system send 130 men to death row and later have them exonerated?”
Grisham urged law students to consider some reforms to current judicial procedure, including increasing video interrogations, clamping down on informants and changing perceptions that police and prosecutors are infallible.
“We should be able to design a system that guarantees everyone basic constitutional rights,” he said.