The death penalty in the United States should be “abolished forever,” author John Grisham said Thursday in an interview with The Kansas City Star.
Grisham, whose books have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide, emphasized he was expressing his personal views.
But in a news conference before the interview, he said supporters of capital punishment should consider how problematic it is to administer. A moratorium should be imposed, the author said.
“I think the system is so badly flawed that all executions should be stopped,” Grisham said.
Grisham was in Kansas City to speak at a dinner benefit for the Midwestern Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing legal aid to prisoners “with persuasive actual innocence claims” in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma and Arkansas. He said Thursday’s event would raise $100,000 for the cause.
Grisham discussed his recent nonfiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, which chronicled the Oklahoma case that resulted in the wrongful convictions of former minor-league baseball player Ron Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz. Williamson was sentenced to die; Fritz got life in prison.
Both were exonerated after spending years in prison. Williamson died of cirrhosis in December 2004, five years after being freed.
Grisham, whose books include The Firm, The Pelican Brief, A Painted House and A Time to Kill, said it is his personal view that the death penalty is immoral.
“I’m a Christian, and you’ll never convince me that Jesus taught revenge killings are what Christians are supposed to be doing.”
A lawyer himself, Grisham said his views began to change when he wrote The Chamber, one of his best-selling novels, which deals with execution.
“Let’s start with the basic concept of a fair trial. We are so far away from that in every state in this country.”
“Snitch testimony” should be outlawed, Grisham added. In some cases, including that involving Williamson and Fritz, prosecutors have paid individuals for their testimony.
In other instances, prosecutors have hidden evidence or refused to share exculpatory evidence with defense lawyers.
Since 1976, Grisham said, more than a hundred people on death row have been exonerated, but many with strong claims of innocence remain incarcerated and face execution. That margin of error is simply too high, he said.
“There are innocent people today on death row. A (relatively) small number… but how many is too many?”
Grisham lives in Charlottesville, Va. He has two novels in the works: a humorous story concerning American football in Italy that will see print in October, and another legal thriller that will be published in February.
For the foreseeable future, though, he’ll have to juggle the writing and the fundraising. Grisham said he is committed long term to making appearances related to “the innocence movement” nationwide.