John Grisham knows how to hook an audience.
On Monday, the Mississippi native and best-selling author told a packed banquet hall in Jackson that the United States legal system is on its way to executing an innocent man.
“It’s inevitable,” he said. “We’re going to wake up one day and know from clear DNA evidence that we killed the wrong guy.”
Grisham and fellow legal thriller author Scott Turow both spoke at a fundraiser for the Mississippi Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal service that seeks to free the innocent from prison using DNA evidence and other methods. The project, housed at the University of Mississippi Law School, is the newest state effort of the national Innocence Project, which has assisted in exonerating more than 200 people convicted of crimes they did not commit, including Cedric Willis.
Willis, who also attended the fundraiser, was convicted of murder in Jackson in 1997 and sentenced to life without parole plus an additional 90 years. With help from the Innocence Project, Willis was freed from prison in 2006 on the strength of DNA and other evidence. Also at the $125-a-plate function was Dennis Fritz, one of the subjects of Grisham’s 2006 nonfiction best seller The Innocent Man.
In demonstrating the need for the Innocence Project, Grisham said Fritz is “exhibit A.” Grisham said there are many reasons why innocent people are convicted, including lack of access to DNA evidence.
Mississippi is one of eight states without a law allowing defendants access to DNA evidence, something Innocence Project organizers hope to bring before the Mississippi Legislature during the next session.
About 350 people attended the dinner at the Jackson Hilton, including many prominent lawyers from around the state. Project director Tucker Carrington said the Mississippi Innocence Project – just an idea a year ago – already has raised $375,000.
“It’s long overdue,” said Kathy Nester, an assistant federal public defender who attended the dinner. “I hope (the fundraiser) bodes well for a long, successful future for the program.”
Because the project is housed at the Ole Miss law school, Carrington said, “virtually every penny donated to our project can go toward our mission.”
It’s a mission both Grisham and Turow said they fervently believe in.
Turow, a former federal prosecutor and current defense attorney, said his thinking on the issue changed in 1991 when he was asked to defend Alejandro Hernandez, a man twice convicted of abducting, raping and killing a 10-year-old girl. Colleagues insisted Hernandez was innocent, he said.
“I said, ‘Baloney.’ No one in America could be convicted of a crime he didn’t commit,” he said. “I was wrong.”
Both authors said there are many more innocent people serving lengthy sentences or waiting on death row. Grisham said there has been very little work done on freeing the innocent in Mississippi and that the Innocence Project was not receiving many pleas for help from the State Penitentiary at Parchman.
“There’s a reason we’re not hearing from Parchman,” he said.
Inmates in the prison have limited access to legal counsel and advocacy groups, he said.
“It’s a brutal place in many respects, but the word is not out there to these prisoners (about the project),” he said.
“Americans believe in justice,” Turow said. “I don’t think anyone thinks it’s an American idea to take an innocent man and sentence him to prison or to death.”
Later this week, Grisham and Turow will speak at Northwestern University in Turow’s hometown of Chicago to support an Innocence Project there.