Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Innocent Man by John Grisham (audio book)

The Innocent Man by John Grisham (Random House, 2006)

This is the story of the trial of two men for the murder of Debra Sue Carter, a young woman who worked as a waitress in Ada, Oklahoma. Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were convicted of a crime they did not commit, and the justice system consumed more than a decade of their lives before minimally correcting its error.

I’m not surprised it took so long to overturn the convictions of these men. I’m surprised it got so far to begin with. The police investigation was very incomplete and shoddy, even for 30 years ago when technology and science played a much lesser role in collecting and analyzing evidence (Grisham strongly suggests the Ada police had ties to drug dealer, including one of the detectives on the case, and that influenced the investigation). The lawyers for the defense were competent, but they were not supplied with the means to mount a good defense for their poor clients. Williamson was clearly mentally ill, but there was never a proper determination of his fitness to stand trial. The evidence was so thin I’m surprised a trial was permitted. They even let a former Ada police chief sit on the jury (admittedly, he was not forthcoming during jury selection, but you would think someone in that small town would have known or pressed the issue more).

I can understand the thirst for answers, especially in a small community where a violent crime captures the public attention. It reminds me of the 2005 conviction here in central Missouri of Ryan Ferguson for the of journalist Kent Heitholt in 2001, when Ferguson was still in high school. The conviction rested on some uncertain eyewitness accounts, possibly influenced by police and prosecutors, and the confession Charles Erickson. There seems to be little evidence against Erickson except his drug-induced loss of memories of the night of the crime. He took a plea bargain to testify against Ferguson. As with Williamson, police and courts seemed to pay little attention to the mental state of Erickson.

In spite of the lack of evidence to back up the witnesses few, in my mind Erickson is a very sketchy witness even to his own involvement, the jury convicted Ferguson. People wanted answers, order, justice, and a sense that the issue was resolved so they could return to a safe life. This made them blind to all the problems with the case against Ferguson. The police felt those public pressures and were too ready to go with a problematic case rather than go through a tough investigation that might lead to no answers. The case had other problems, and as people began to admit to false confessions and prosecutorial influence of witnesses, the conviction was revisited and overturned in 2013, after Ferguson had spent most of his 20s in prison.

I think our justice system is often close to the mark and produces mostly good results. However, it should not take years, or decades, to correct such problematic cases as these. In fact, these cases should have never come to trial based on such flimsy evidence.