Lawyer-novelists John Grisham and Scott Turow covered topics ranging from the World Series to the death penalty at a discussion benefiting the Center on Wrongful Convictions, a part of the Northwestern University School of Law, on Wednesday night.
The audience of about 600 people was a mix of law school students from NU, lawyers and center supporters. Tickets cost $50 for students and $100 for non-students.
The discussion centered on what led the two men to oppose the death penalty.
“Growing up the way I did in Mississippi, we all felt the death penalty was biblical,” Grisham told the audience. “Then, when I was researching (a novel), I went to death row and talked to the inmates, the executioner and the chaplain … and became convinced that this wasn’t what a civil society should be doing.”
Turow, who grew up in Chicago and attended Winnetka’s New Trier Township High School, also spoke passionately against the death penalty.
“The question isn’t whether (dangerous people) exist. The question is whether we’ll ever develop a capital punishment system that will only deal with those people and not the innocent people, and I came to the answer of no,” he said. “If you think it’s such a good idea, go down there and push the button yourself.”
Many of the author’s statements received applause from the audience. Second-year NU law student David Kohn said he was impressed with the speakers, especially Turow.
“It was a good discussion,” he said. “One thing I noticed was, for instance, Scott Turow was more thoughtful about his position than I expected him to be.”
Grisham also talked about his most recent book, “The Innocent Man.” The book focuses on the story of Ron Williamson, a man wrongfully convicted and incarcerated on death row for 11 years, who came within five days of being executed before being exonerated by DNA evidence.
“When you sit in prison in Oklahoma and talk to two innocent men who’ve been in prison for 25 years and will never get out, it stays under your skin,” Grisham said. “You think ‘What a waste.’”
The two men also discussed possible reforms to the criminal justice system. Turow served on the Illinois Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment, which made 85 recommendations to the state legislature for reforms to the death penalty system, half of which were adopted.
But Turow said he is still not satisfied with the system.
“We should be very proud of the reforms that have been enacted,” he said. “But… doubts about the system persist.”
The Center on Wrongful Convictions was involved in these reforms as well. The center, staffed by several lawyers but relying on the work of many NU law students, actively defends clients who it feels have been wrongly convicted.
“Their lives could not be in better hands,” said Steven Drizin, the center’s legal director.
The center was launched at NU in 1999 and has represented more than one-fourth of the 45 individuals exonerated in Illinois since its establishment. Illinois has exonerated more wrongfully convicted prisoners than any state in the country, said John Levi, a member of the center’s advisory committee.
Pictures of “The Exonerated” were displayed on big-screen televisions prior to the discussion. Many of them were in attendance and recognized by Drizin.
The night also included the presentation of the Center on Wrongful Convictions’ Jenner & Block Award to Illinois State Appellate Defender Theodore A. Gottfried for his lifetime work in improving the criminal justice system.
“It is a privilege to receive this award from Northwestern University,” Gottfried said. “The fine work (the center) is doing here is so important for the justice system.”
Source: The Daily Northwestern