On wrongful convictions

John Grisham’s books are among my favorites for summer reading. Some are better than others, of course. But in addition to having Northeast Arkansas roots, Grisham also has a lawyerly way with words and intrigue. When it’s good, his storytelling of attorneys with a cause is great.

Most of Grisham’s collection of novels occupy a shelf in my library; the newest addition is his first work of nonfiction.

It would be easy to say The Innocent Man is one part biography, one part social commentary, but it’s so much more than just two parts. What it does wonderfully and powerfully is let the reader ride shotgun in a small-town tale of lost potential, murder and injustice.

Ron Williamson of Ada, Okla., was a burnt-out baseball prodigy in the early 1980s who struggled with substance abuse and bouts of mental illness in the twilight of his short-lived athletic career.

His habits and lifestyle positioned him as a possible suspect when a young waitress named Debra Carter was savagely raped and strangled. Grisham masterfully chronicles the myriad developments and circumstances that led to Williamson’s erroneous conviction, death sentence and near-execution before eventually being exonerated by DNA analysis.

All told, Williamson lost a dozen years of his life and most of his sanity while languishing on Oklahoma’s death row.

Filled with eye-opening insights and ironies, The Innocent Man is a timely read even though it was written a decade ago. Arkansas’ capital punishment laws and process were national news in the not-too-distant past, and when driven by fanatics on either side, death penalty discussions devolve rapidly into hard-line hostility.

It’s easy to adopt the unbudging “give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile” attitude when the other side is already demanding the mile with a closed fist and a grimace.

Dug-in attitudes recall the humorous old Irish poem about the faction fight over the birth of St. Patrick: “And who wouldn’t see right, sure they blackened his eye!”

Multifaceted subjects like capital punishment ought to warrant more compromising temperaments. No law-abiding citizen wants or supports wrongful convictions, and especially not wrongful executions. But it’s hard for most people to understand the complexity of circumstances that typically combine to produce an erroneous conviction.

For example, as many as 25 percent of DNA exonerations for homicide involved cases where there was a false confession.

Ask the average person to explain why anyone would ever falsely confess to a murder, and the response will probably be bewilderment. That’s largely because the average person has never been arrested and charged with a violent crime, and is thus unfamiliar with law enforcement in that adversarial context.

The one-sided perspective can promote an unquestioning faith in police, investigators and prosecutors.

As federal appellate judge Alex Kozinski wrote a few years back, “There are, we are convinced, no Edmond Dantèses and no Château d’Ifs in America today.”

But as human institutions, law enforcement and criminal court systems not only make mistakes but also are subject to malice and manipulation, and thus require checks and balances in the same anti-tyranny doses as other governmental arms.

You can’t read The Innocent Man without gleaning a greater understanding of how little power any unaided individual has once locked in the crosshairs of the justice system. Those with means to hire attorneys may have as much trouble imagining the truth being trampled beneath a wrongful accusation as they do understanding false confessions.

The fact that Ron Williamson had absolutely nothing to do with Debra Carter’s murder—he was at his mother’s house watching a movie that night—and yet still came within five days of being executed is chilling to contemplate.

Technology has shaped both criminality and investigation faster than legislative change can keep up. Capital crime statutes are not immune. But lawmaking is anything but a winner-take-all proposition.

The goal for a democratic society that still favors capital punishment is making sure the death penalty is reserved exclusively for and applied only to guilty murderers.

Conditions for the death penalty typically include aggravating circumstances based on the perpetrator’s actions. No matter how heinous a killing and how despicable the killer, if it doesn’t statutorily comport with a capital crime, there can be no death sentence.

Plus, the realities of jockeying charges, defenses and plea bargains often result in quirky and inconsistent capital convictions, i.e., one of two equally guilty killers testifies against the other in exchange for a lesser penalty.

Certain evidentiary elements also could become conditions for capital cases. A simple and presumably mutually agreeable requirement might be DNA validation or corroborating video before a jury can consider a death sentence.

Either of those would have disqualified death as a penalty in Ron Williamson’s case. Neither, however, would have addressed his wrongful conviction in the first place.

The National Registry of Exonerations lists only six cases in Arkansas, two of which were murders. But common sense tells us that with some 18,000 Arkansans in prison, the number of innocent people behind bars is much larger.

We can’t be OK with that, and I’ll explore and explain why in next week’s column.