John Grisham’s most recent book is not a fictional crime thriller. Rather, it is the true story of a former minor league baseball player who spent eleven years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Although the story is non-fiction, Grisham says he found it as compelling as any legal thriller he has written.
The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town details the case of Roy Williamson. He was once a promising baseball player who was drafted 41st out of 800 players chosen in the 1971 major league baseball draft. He played in the minor leagues until 1976, when arm injuries and alcoholism brought his career to an end.
Williamson went home to a life of drinking, womanizing, and signs of bipolar disorder. He couldn’t hold down a job, and had several arrests. He was charged with rape twice, but was found innocent in both jury trials.
In 1982, a cocktail waitress in his hometown was raped and murdered. Williamson and his friend Dennis Fritz were accused of the murder and put on trial. The authorities had no proof that the men committed the crime. There were no fingerprints at the scene and no eyewitnesses. The best piece of “evidence” presented by the prosecutor was a vague identification of them as the killers.
Both men were convicted of the murders, with Williamson receiving the death sentence and Fritz receiving a life sentence in prison. Eleven years later, they were both cleared of any involvement in the crime when DNA tests exonerated them. Those same DNA tests proved that the killer was actually the man who provided the identification of Williamson and Fritz at their trial.
Grisham’s book explores how the system denied these men their rights throughout their trial, and eventually robbed them of more than eleven years of their lives. They were released from prison in 1999, a mere five days before Williamson was scheduled to be put to death. He died of cirrhosis of the liver five years later.